Date of Award

Summer 2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Director

Daniel P. Richards

Committee Member

David Metzger

Committee Member

Julie E. Romberger

Committee Member

Emma J. Rose


Contemporary scholars in rhetoric studies and technical communication have theorized rhetorical agency as engaging human and nonhuman actors in online spaces. One such space, where the work of scholarship, teaching, and technical communication practice intersect, is online research. In online research interfaces, scholars and students alike conduct research; scholars teach and students learn the online research process toward contributing knowledge; and technical communicators design and test meaningful user experiences in these interfaces.

However, the field offers few comprehensive methodologies for studying the emergence of rhetorical agency in online search environments, where the activities of technologies, humans, corporations, and environments coalesce. As a result, technical communicators, who both study the meaning-making activities of technologies and seek to explain those activities through technology-mediated practices, lack methods that would enable them to test the validity of emerging theoretical frameworks for understanding rhetorical agency in online activities like research.

This study implements modified usability tests and collects technical browser data to identify and trace the emergence of rhetorical agency among human, technological, environmental, and ideological actors during online research activity initiated using an online library search interface. In an IRB-approved case study, the study synchronizes user and technological activities centered around the web browser. Through detailed analysis of usability testing recordings along with data collected in HTTP archive files, the study traces rhetorical agency to the millisecond as human, technological, environmental, and ideological activities converge in the research process.

The study reveals agency as emerging, shared among collective actors during online research. It provides the field accessible methods for tracing rhetorical agency in posthuman assemblages of human and nonhuman entities engaged in meaning-making activities. It concludes with the following implications:

1. Scholars should develop and test updated methodologies that address posthuman agency.

2. Rhetorical agency in online research should be re-examined for its assemblage and emergent qualities.

3. The “end user” of UX design should be recognized and treated as an assemblage.

4. The field should teach online search as a rhetorical activity.

5. Critical media literacies must widen their critique to include posthuman agency.


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