What I'm Researching and Writing

Digital Rhetoric, Software Studies, and Composition

My research interests involve exploring the rhetoric of digital media and its production, especially in regards to open source software (OSS) and the communal development of OSS programs (both in terms of how software programs are constructed and in terms of how individual and community identities are formed and changed over the course of a program's development). This has lined up most effectively with my interests in open source software and my privilege in teaching students in several innovative learning environments, where I've had the chance to see the different dynamics that can affect the effectiveness of composing with technologies. While the most direct application of this work can be found in professional and technical communication, it can also be extended to writing and composing in a broader sense.

My fascination with connecting together digital technology and composition has aligned with my research into the rhetoric of open source software development. I've recently begun exploring ways to incorporate using and examining open source software within the composition classroom in order to discuss not only the increasing number of software programs available to facilitate composition, but also to discuss the nature of communal programming and related conversation (not unlike academic collaboration, to a great extent).


  • Brock, Kevin. Rhetorical Code Studies: Discovering Arguments in and around Code, U Michigan Press, 2019. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.10019291.
    Winner, 2017 UM Press/Sweetland Publication Prize in Digital Rhetoric: advance contract for publication and $5,000.

Software developers work rhetorically to make meaning through the code they write. In some ways, writing code is like any other form of communication; in others, it proves to be new, exciting, and unique. In Rhetorical Code Studies, Kevin Brock explores how software code serves as meaningful communication through which software developers construct arguments that are made up of logical procedures and express both implicit and explicit claims as to how a given program operates.

Building on current scholarly work in digital rhetoric, software studies, and technical communication, Brock connects and continues ongoing conversations among rhetoricians, technical communicators, software studies scholars, and programming practitioners to demonstrate how software code and its surrounding discourse are highly rhetorical forms of communication. He considers examples ranging from large, well-known projects like Mozilla Firefox to small-scale programs like the “FizzBuzz” test common in many  programming job interviews. Undertaking specific examinations of code texts as well as the contexts surrounding their composition, Brock illuminates the variety and depth of rhetorical activity taking place in and around code, from individual differences in style to changes in large-scale organizational and community norms.

Rhetorical Code Studies holds significant implications for digital communication, multimodal composition, and the cultural analysis of software and its creation. It will interest academics and students of writing, rhetoric, and software engineering as well as technical communicators and developers of all types of software.

Journal Articles

In this webtext, we explore how Magic and other complex analog systems operate rhetorically as activity networks. First, we perform brief analyses of Magic’s rules, player archetypes, and common play styles in order to examine how the game’s protocological mechanisms and surrounding play culture have developed over the last twenty-five years. Second, we engage the game’s protocological qualities more directly through exploratory play using both pre-constructed starter and custom-built decks. Our scrutiny of Magic’s protocols then leads us to consider and compare the game’s anticipated activities (as described in its game rules and our social expectations, conventions, and norms involved in playing the game) with its realized expressions of those activities (as encountered when actually playing one or more iterations of the game itself).

We examine the rhetorical activity employed within software development communities in code texts. For technical communicators, the rhetoricity of code is crucial for the development of more effective code and documentation. When we understand that code is a collection of rhetorical decisions about how to engage those machinic processes, we can better attend to the significance and nuance of those decisions and their impact on potential user activities.

Procedure, when discussed in regards to rhetoric, and to “digital rhetoric” in particular, is framed overwhelmingly in regards to game play (and to video games most frequently). We argue that this view needs to be expanded if scholars of rhetoric are to realize how complex human-computer rhetor systems function in diverse contexts. Such systems do so through procedural enthymemes, which persuade audience agents to action through the apparent logic of a given system. Procedural persuasion occurs most often via strategies that facilitate the agent to assume an active role in “self-persuasion” in order to complete a given enthymeme. In this text, we explore the procedural enthymeme as a rhetorical tactic for human and nonhuman persuasion by looking at three case studies of commonly used technological “matching” systems—search engines (Google), online matchmaking (Match.com), and social networking (Facebook)—that employ procedural enthymemes in order to persuade users toward particular engagements with those systems.

Every code text is informed by stylistic decisions that impact how the text is interpreted and understood. While software developers have long discussed concerns of style in regards to writing code, scholars of computation would benefit from a rhetorical approach to style, an approach that links style to substance and sees style as situated and audience-specific. In this essay, several stylistic variations of code written for the ‘FizzBuzz’ hiring test are examined in order to demonstrate the significance of stylistic choice in code composition. The range of approaches coders might take to communicate a preferred method of accomplishing a given task in code indicates that rhetorical style performs an important role in how code is accessed and comprehended by human and nonhuman audiences alike. Accordingly, software critics need to attend more closely to the ways that coders employ rhetorical style in order to induce particular types of rhetorical action through their code texts and practices.

In this article, I question rhetoric’s preference for the heuristic by reexamining one of the oldest and most fundamental tools available to a rhetor: the enthymeme. The enthymeme, while serving as the basis for heuristic invention, also works at the local level as a rhetorically oriented algorithmic procedure through which a rhetor determines the most probable success for persuading an audience to action. Procedural rhetoric, demonstrated through the enthymeme, provides a means for understanding persuasive engagements with, through, and by digital technologies.

Scholars of, or interested in, rhetoric have an opportunity to build upon the emerging body of work from the fields of software studies and critical code studies in order to explore the potential for meaning-making made possible through code and its expression(s). Over the last decade, rhetoric has significantly expanded to incorporate image, sound, video, and game play into its domain, especially in regards to rhetorical acts facilitated by computers. However, there has been relatively little scrutiny of the rhetorical value and agency of the procedural structures on which these acts are constructed.

In order to draw attention to how code works rhetorically, this article examines three Oulipian “cybertexts,” works that a) are more interested in the “potential” texts they can create than the importance of any particular outcomes, and b) demonstrate their underlying mechanisms as integral components of their expression. There are several key observations for rhetoricians to be gained from these examinations, and the most notable is the capacity for action made possible through their composition in code and through their expressive performances. Each cybertext conveys meaning through its potential to induce change in human and technological audiences through the code and natural languages that comprise it.

Chapters in Edited Collections

  • Brock, Kevin. Treating Code as a Persuasive Argument. Rhetorical Machines: Writing, Code, and Computational Ethics, edited by John Jones and Lavinia Hirsu, U Alabama Press, 2019, pp. 69-85.

In this chapter, I attempt to address questions regarding the rhetorical qualities of code through an investigation of code texts and discussions thereof among the development community for Ruby on Rails, a popular framework for web applications. The Rails community is particularly suitable for a critical examination of code rhetoric due to its large and varied membership; the relatively readable nature of Ruby code, in which Rails and its web applications are written; and the publicly accessible, open source philosophy surrounding Rails development, meaning that there is an expectation that other readers may, with relative ease, discover and modify further relevant code texts. While it would be impossible to examine Rails comprehensively in a single chapter, the two minor cases explored here reflect the breadth of rhetoric's presence and influence on development of the project, as well as suggesting possibilities for future investigations regarding other software projects of various scales and scopes.

  • Brock, Kevin. Establishing Ethos on Proprietary and Open Source Software Websites. Online Credibility and Digital Ethos: Evaluating Computer-Mediated Communication, edited by Shawn Apostel and Moe Folk, IGI Global, 2013, pp. 56-76.
    Reprinted in Software Design and Development: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications, edited by Ankia Barišic, Vasco Amaral, Miguel Goulão, and Barroca, IGI Global, 2014, pp. 915-935.

The increasing prominence and variety of open source software (OSS) threaten to upset conventional approaches to software development and marketing. While a tremendous amount of scholarship has been published on the differences between proprietary and OSS development, little has been discussed regarding the effect of rhetorical appeals used to promote either type of software. This chapter offers just such an examination, focusing its scrutiny on the websites for three pairs of competitors (operating system, Web browser, and image manipulation program). The means by which the OSS  websites promote their programs provide a significant set of insights into the potential trajectory of OSS development and its widespread public acceptance, in terms of both its initial philosophy and its perceived alternative nature to traditional software products and models.

Refereed Conference Papers

  • Matthews, Michael A., Gina Kuntz, Darin Freeburg, and Kevin Brock. A Novel Course Sequence on Critical Thinking for the Professional Development of Graduate Students. Proceedings of the 2019 American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exhibition, Paper 26723, June 2019, Tampa FL.

Book Reviews


  • Brock, Kevin. Teaching Procedural Rhetoric through the ‘Actual Play’ Genre. Computers & Writing, Greenville, NC, 15 May 2020. Conference canceled due to COVID-19.
  • Brock, Kevin. A Genre Analysis of README. Conference on College Composition and Communication, Milwaukee, WI, 27 Mar. 2020. Conference canceled due to COVID-19.
  • Brock, Kevin. How Programmers Write. Research Network Forum, Conference on College Composition and Communication, 13 Mar. 2019, Pittsburgh, PA.
  • Brock, Kevin. Software Libraries as Computational Topoi. Computers & Writing, Fairfax, VA, 25 May 2018.
  • Brock, Kevin. Can We Trust the Tools? The Rhetorical Work of Collaborative Software Development. Association for the Rhetoric of Science, Technology, and Medicine Preconference for National Communication Association 2017. Dallas, TX, 15 Nov. 2017.
  • Brock, Kevin. Treating Code as a Persuasive Argument. Conference on College Composition and Communication, 16 Mar. 2017, Portland, OR.
  • Brock, Kevin. The Creative Potential of Composing in Code. Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, 5 Nov. 2016, Atlanta, GA.
  • Brock, Kevin. Reading Hedge-O-Matic's Code Rhetorically. Rhetoric Society of America, 28 May 2016, Atlanta, GA.
  • Brock, Kevin. Git as Site for Distributed and Iterative Composition. Conference on College Composition and Communication, 9 Apr. 2016, Houston, TX.
  • Brock, Kevin and Ashley R. Kelly. Rhetorical genres in code. Indiana Digital Rhetoric Symposium, 10 Apr. 2015, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.
    Review of IDRS panel by Andrew Iliadis. Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. 28 Apr. 2015.
  • Brock, Kevin. Material. Conference on College Composition and Communication, 20 Mar. 2015, Tampa, FL.
  • Brock, Kevin. Composing Accessible Code. Computers & Writing, 8 June 2014, Washington State University, Pullman, WA.
  • Brock, Kevin. Against NCTECCCC's OWI Effective Principle 2 on Technology as Not-Writing. Conference on College Composition and Communication, 20 Mar. 2014, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Brock, Kevin. Rhetorical Ontologies of Code. Western States Rhetoric and Literacy Conference, 25 Oct. 2013, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT.
  • Brock, Kevin. The Public Work of Procedural Pedagogy. Conference on College Composition and Communication, 14 Mar. 2013, Las Vegas, NV.
  • Brock, Kevin. Programming as Writing (with) New Media. Computers & Writing, 19 May 2012, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.
  • Brock, Kevin. Establishing Ethos on Proprietary and Open Source Software Websites. Annual Convention of the National Communication Association, 18 Nov. 2011, New Orleans, LA.
  • Brock, Kevin and Jennifer Ware. Tones of Discourse: The Arduino Microprocessor as Translator and Re-signifier. Computers & Writing, 21 May 2011, Ann Arbor, MI.
  • Brock, Kevin. One Hundred Thousand Billion Icons: Digital Cybertext and Computational Oulipian Writing. Conference on College Composition and Communication, 9 Apr. 2011, Atlanta, GA.
  • Rodrigo, Rochelle, Paul Kei Matsuda, Cynthia Selfe, Chris Anson, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Greg Glau, Jay Dolmage, Kati Fargo, Kevin Brock, and Lamiyah Bahrainwala. We are 113! Conference on College Composition and Communication, 8 Apr. 2011, Atlanta, GA.
  • Brock, Kevin. Behind the Screen: Cyber-awareness and Perceptions of Paranormal Technology. Resurrection of the Paranormal: Investigating Otherness in 21st Century English Studies Symposium, 6 Mar. 2010, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.
  • Brock, Kevin. Open Source Software and the Construction of Online Identities. Carolina Rhetoric Conference, 20 Feb. 2010, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.
  • Brock, Kevin. Paul Virilio and the Electronic Zombie Apocalypse. New Voices: Literature and Rhetoric of the Apocalypse, 22 Oct. 2009, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.