My Teaching Life: Karl Stolley


By Kelli Cargile Cook

Member of ATTW since 2005

Occupation: Associate Professor of Digital Writing and Rhetoric

Institution: Illinois Institute of Technology,  Chicago, IL

What’s your teaching philosophy?

I teach from the edges of my own learning. I offer courses in digital topics, such as web application development or the course I offered last fall in application programming interfaces, so I feel a strong sense of responsibility to teach the latest, most stable developments in those areas. But it would be impossible to prepare all of that material ahead of time. I am fortunate to work with an outstanding group of students at IIT who are willing to engage with material that I’m clearly still working to master. At the same time, building upon curricular foundations that I’ve established in open formats and open standards reduces a lot of the risk inherent in teaching from the edges–and gives my students and I a shared foundation of knowledge to work from.

Who or what inspires or inspired you to teach?

Patricia Sullivan. Pat was my dissertation adviser at Purdue, but long before I reached that stage of my education I saw in Pat the model for the kind of professor that I wanted, and still want, to be. Pat’s seminar in cybercultures, which I took while still an MA student, opened up for me some of the many exciting extremes of teaching and research in digital writing and rhetoric. But beyond her skill in designing amazing courses and publishing an incredible body of written research, complete with their own kinds of edge-teaching, Pat is an exemplary model for the kind of concern and interest professors should take in their students. I struggle and ultimately regularly fail to live up to Pat’s example, but she continues to be a mentor and dear friend to me to this day.

What article or book was most influential in your teacher training?

Janice Lauer’s textbook, Four Worlds of Writing. I haven’t had the occasion to teach from it in years, but I used it in all of the first-year writing courses that I taught while I was a graduate student, as soon as I had the option to choose my own textbook. Four Worlds grounded and pointed the way forward for making an actionable, classroom-friendly application of epistemic rhetoric and heuristic-based instruction, situated in sFour worlds of writingtudents own lived contexts of everyday private life, public discourse, school, and work. I still, even in courses like web application development, treat writing as inquiry that can be approached heuristically–regardless of whether that ‘writing’ is expressed through text, source code, interface design, or digital media. And even when students are designing web applications in Ruby on Rails or some other framework, I expect that their design will be somehow connected to their own lived contexts.

What’s on your desk right now?

mobileinterfacesI have a whole lot of technology on my desk: a 27″ iMac that’s also connected to a second 27″ Apple LED Cinema Display. A 13″ retina MacBook pro and an iPad Mini, also with a retina display. My iPhone 5 is out, too. While I most obviously love technology to surround myself with such a collection, I practice and teach responsive web design techniques, so I like to have as many devices as possible around to test things as I go. This collection also helps me rule out design decisions that simply aren’t going to work on tablet and mobile devices. Although my collection of devices might seem excessive, I’m always looking to add more to ensure that whatever I’m creating digitally is accessible across the widest possible range of devices.

What’s your most dog-eared print reference Garner_dictionarybook?

I have completely broken the spine on the first edition of Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern  American Usage. I keep it close by, whether I’m drafting or editing and revising. I still have my first edition in print, even though there’s a new edition (called Garner’s Modern American Usage) available electronically. Although I keep and typically prefer to have my reference books on my iPad, I like the serendipity of being able to flip through and read entries in theDictionary of Modern American Usage. Beyond the shorter entries one might expect in a dictionary, Garner has also written numerous shorter essays on different topics of usage. I cling to my first edition because I know where everything is. I wrote with it for my dissertation, every article I’ve written, my first book, and the things I’m working on now. So there’s an emotional attachment there, too. [Update: After writing in response to this question, and receiving a last-minute assignment to teach a course in technical editing, I broke down and bought the latest edition. In print.]

What’s the one tool or technology you couldn’t teach without?

linuxThe Linux operating system. I direct my own computer lab at IIT, and I teach exclusively with a Ubuntu Linux installation on those machines that I have carefully prepared for students to use. Not only is Linux the operating system that powers so much of the Internet (even Microsoft runs Skype and its own Windows Update servers on Linux), but because it is free and open source, I don’t have to worry about students facing financial hurdles to access the languages, frameworks, and software that I teach in class. Because the Linux ecosystem is comprised of liberally licensed software, I also don’t have to concern myself with adhering to restrictive licensing agreements that would otherwise impose themselves on how and what I teach. And for the type of source-level writing and development that I ask students to do, it’s impossible to beat Linux, which has a far broader selection of development tools than Windows or even Mac (whose OS X, like Linux, is a Unix-based operating system).

What’s your favorite writing instrument/hardware?desktop

I’m not good with favorites, although lately I’ve been challenging myself to become skilled at writing with vim, a text- and keyboard-only command-line text editor that traces its origins to the vi editor from the 1970s. One of my favorite ways to write is to sit on my patio with my bluetooth keyboard and iPad, onto which I’ve installed an SSH app called iSSH. (SSH stands for ‘Secure Shell’; it’s a way to securely log into and operate a computer remotely, the way people used to do insecurely with TelNet.) SSH allows me to use my iPad to log into the iMac in my office. Once I’ve connected, I’ve essentially turned my iPad into a ‘thin client’ for writing through vim and saving everything on my iMac. I can even committing my work to Git, the version control system I use, and push it out to my GitHub account at All from my patio or anywhere else in the world, on an iPad.

What book or article are you currently reading for your scholarship or teaching?

Stern_mp3I just started reading Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Sign, Storage, Transmission). I’m not far enough along to say anything insightful about it, but it opens by setting up some interesting discussions about the development of compression in digital artifacts and the role of telephony in digital audio. I’m reading this as I begin work on a book-length project that starts by examining the development of the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) in the 1960s, and traces that work through to the development of Linux, and Linux’s influential role in leading the explosive growth of open-source software and open-source development models.

What’s the next big thing that technical communication teachers should know/be able to do?

JavaScript. I don’t mean the the little snippets of JavaScript that people cut and paste to do cutesy things on their Web pages. I’m talking about JavaScript that runs server-side, especially the Node.js framework, as well as more advanced scripting in the browser and the use of JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) for passing data around in really lightweight formats (versus the heavy behemoth that is XML). The API course that I teach is based almost entirely in JavaScript and Node.js, and gives preference to data APIs that push down JSON; the course website can be found at JavaScript has a bad reputation as a language, but Marijn Haverbeke’s Eloquent JavaScript and, as a follow-up or a companion read, Douglas Crockford’s JavaScript: The Good Parts are great books for learning first-rate JavaScript. Crockford has also delivered a number of useful JavaScript lectures that have been posted on YouTube.

What’s a current, major project that you are working on?


Other than the book I mentioned above, I have another book that’s a little further along. And I’m really excited about it. It’s a short book on modular web development, basically providing theoretical foundations for discovering alternatives to common database-driven systems like WordPress. The book pulls apart the whole stack of technologies that drive modern web development and web applications, and looks at ways to simplify and make modular and interdependent each of those component parts. I’m composing the book as a series of Markdown files that are compiled into an EPUB eBook every evening at 6pm CT on the days when I’ve worked on it. I just write in Markdown, and I’ve written scripts that automate the rest of the build process, using an awesome little Ruby program called rpub. I find it amusing that, when I show people how they can download the EPUB right to an iPad, as soon as it opens in iBooks they all exclaim, “Wow! It’s a real book!” I didn’t think I’d ever hear that exclamation regarding a digital book in my lifetime. The source for the book is available on GitHub, and there are ways there for any interested readers to offer feedback as the project develops at .