Messages from Writers on Writing and Education
Reflection by Shannon Fanning
I began research on Project Semicolon, a nonprofit anti-suicide initiative made popular by its social media presence, a little over a year ago. I was struck by the devotion of its members, many of whom went far beyond simply identifying as group members sharing experiences, even choosing to have the group’s semicolon symbol tattooed on their own bodies. As I am a scholar of visual rhetoric, it was important for me to figure out not only why the group had chosen this particular symbol, but also how and why it seemed to be circulating so effectively both within this group and across the boundaries of Project Semicolon to other groups and contexts. This inquiry led me to analyze many manifestations of the semicolon tattoo and ultimately to write the article that is excerpted here.
While there are several in-process pieces of writing I could have submitted to this collection, I chose to share this one because it was composed together with my student research intern, Nicole Mallas. The literature review you see here is as much a result of her work as my own.
I am focusing here on the literature review, because it is a type of writing that is often unfamiliar to students and others removed from scholarly publishing. Together, Nicole and I are able to bring some transparency to the academic literature review, while also offering reflection on the writing process from both the student and professor perspectives. I hope this chapter will prove valuable not only to students and others approaching academic writing with emerging expertise, but to all who enter into collaborative writing relationships.
Visual Intervention in Discussions of Mental Health: The Semicolon Tattoo as a Visible Boundary Object
Project Semicolon is a nonprofit, anti-suicide initiative that promotes mental health awareness. Founded in 2013, the movement is perhaps best known for its symbolic use of the semicolon. The semicolon is meant to represent a pause, as the organization itself describes: “a semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.” In support of the movement and in recognition of their own mental health struggles, many supporters have had the symbol tattooed on their bodies. Using Project Semicolon as a case study, this article utilizes and expands on the concept of rhetorical boundary objects to explore the semicolon’s function as visual intervention in discussions of mental health.
First defined by Star and Griesemer (1989) as an object “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs…yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (p. 393), boundary objects have been examined by a host of scholars for their usefulness in fostering integration and collaboration (e.g., Gorman, 2002; Kim and Herbert, 2012; Wilson and Herndl, 2007). Riesch’s (2010) work on boundaries combines science and technology studies with social psychology theories of boundaries to intricately investigate how boundaries are crossed and what the effects are. My work is informed by these various conceptions of boundary objects and seeks to add to the existing discussion by focusing specifically on visual boundary objects and highlighting the ways in which they may function to promote awareness and acceptance. It also draws significantly from theories of material rhetoric to advocate for more critical attention to the rhetorical possibility of symbols like the semicolon.
The semicolon functions as a particularly successful boundary object, as it has united various groups, crossing the boundaries between gender, religion, and race. In addition to crossing these social boundaries among Project Semicolon’s supporters, the semicolon symbol has also crossed group boundaries, as it has been adopted by other groups to promote mental health awareness like the veteran group IGY6 (I got your six). Like Project Semicolon supporters, IGY6 members have utilized the symbol in many ways, often adapting it in color and style. For example, many in this group choose to use a teal blue semicolon to represent PTSD awareness. Further, the semicolon has crossed media and genre boundaries, appearing on Facebook, Instagram, and most recently in the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why. Because it holds immense power in all of these contexts, remaining recognizable yet adaptable enough for each group to make the symbol uniquely its own, the semicolon works to transform the representation of mental illness from the kind of rhetorical disability Johnson (2010), Prendergast (2001), and others write about to an empowering symbol Wolfgang and Kwon (2019) describe as “an outward declaration of an ongoing quest …” (p. 3). My rhetorically informed case study both critically engages with and extends upon the concept of boundary objects. While tracing how the semicolon functions successfully as a boundary object, this article will advocate for the rhetorical power of visual boundary objects and call for more strategic use of them in future mental health awareness initiatives.
Review of the Literature
This section reviews the existing academic literature on Project Semicolon. It also discusses the concepts of rhetorical boundary theory and material rhetoric, while highlighting the importance of these theories in the context of this study.
Project Semicolon was started by Amy Bleuel in 2013 to create a space where people could share stories about their mental health struggles. Originally intended to tell her father’s story about his struggle and lost battle with suicide, Bleuel also used the space to talk about her own struggles and suicide attempt. Participants in the semicolon project draw or tattoo images of a semicolon on their bodies. The semicolon is meant to symbolize a moment in which one could have chosen to end one’s life, but instead chose to continue. The group aims to help reduce suicide by providing a sense of community as well as greater access to information and resources (Project Semicolon). The semicolon is intended to symbolize healing and strength, an act Covington (2015) claims allows users to “shift identities—to move beyond the harmful behaviors of their past and welcome a future self that no longer self-harms or contemplates suicide” (10).
While not much academic research has been published on this movement, the literature that does exist tends to focus on the motivations and stigmas associated with tattoos like the semicolon tattoo. The simple representation of a semicolon holds immense power for those who struggle with defying this stigma, as it can represent vulnerability and emotional growth without the individual having to utter a single word. Therefore, a semicolon can hold a deeper symbolic representation besides its known grammatical origins. It empowers individuals to “re-author their future selves as healthier individuals dedicated to ending self-harm and suicide” (Covington, 2015, p. 15). Here, the semicolon tattoo both visually and rhetorically represents a permanent marking of inner strength and resilience, immediately recognized by an audience impacted by these same struggles. This allows impacted individuals to vocalize their battles through the use of symbolism. The immense symbolism of the semicolon tattoo not only represents inner strength, but also contributes to the healing process for those facing these struggles. The tattoo represents the transformation from once dark, painful times to a time of healing and accomplishment. Covington even suggests that the semicolon tattoo is a reminder that helps prevent relapses back to negative coping mechanisms. Although some hold negative stereotypes towards those with tattoos, tattoos significantly contribute to healing these wounds. These symbolic tattoos continuously help others overcome moments of difficulty, reminding those impacted that there are better days ahead.
Alter-Muri (2020) describes tattooing as art therapy that helps clients understand their thoughts and emotions and later goes so far as to suggest tattooing as a form of self-care “serving as a vehicle for resilience and self-acceptance” (p. 145). This cathartic experience is essential to the emotional healing process of those impacted by mental illness. Therapeutic tattooing can also be utilized by those who are commemorating loss. “For bereaved persons, death and grief make up the elephant in the room; although they are very much present, this presence is unacknowledged, and the bereaved are silenced. Memorial tattoos as visual images and art are important to this ‘presence’” (Davidson, 2017, p. 34). These semicolon tattoos embody the presence of those who lost their battle to mental illness, while also raising awareness of the severity of mental illness both for the individuals impacted and for those surrounding them as well.
Rhetorically based studies have often made use of the Star and Griesemer’s concept of boundary objects. While Star and Griesemer (1989) focused on the demarcation of science from non-science, other rhetorical scholars have focused on how boundary objects may foster integration and collaboration. Wilson and Herndl (2007), for example, focus on how boundary work can be used to foster collaboration rather than controversy and demarcation. They also suggest that boundary objects can generate an integrative exigency. The collaborative nature of boundary objects can be seen in the work of scholars like Gorman (2002) and his concept of boundary-object trading zones, where people from different fields and different levels of expertise interact around the development of a particular technology. Integrative exigency is also apparent in Galison’s (1996) definition of trading zones as spaces that allow different communicative entities to communicate and contextualize local knowledge in relation to the common goal of the communicative network. Kim and Herbert (2012) also focus on the collaborative function of boundary objects, invoking the idea of boundary objects to develop the Inquiry Resources Collection, a resource collaboration developed by scientists to support novice science teachers’ lesson design. Houf (2020) combines the concepts of boundary work and boundary objects, arguing that the synthesis can be useful to technical and professional communications scholars in moments of controversy. Using the case of fecal microbiota transplants, Houf argues that the microbiome functions as a boundary object, as it opens up space within medicine’s own boundary work for the inclusion of fecal microbiota transplants.
Boundary objects, however, do not need to be concrete. Dunbar-Hester (2013) theorizes that localism functions as a discursive boundary object, mitigating differences for groups that might not otherwise have agreed. Sauer (2003), Scott (2006), and most recently Walsh and Walker (2016) conceive of uncertainty as a boundary object, by which a rhetorical topos helps bridge divides between discourse communities. Walsh and Walker continue to argue that risk communication scholars need to adopt a consistent rhetorical framework for the types of uncertainty they encounter to produce more nuanced studies of that uncertainty. By combining the rhetorical idea of boundary objects with social psychology theories of boundaries, Riesch (2010) further expands our understanding of these concepts. Riesch argues that boundaries can be explained through social psychological approaches of the social representation theory and social identity theory. Using the example of popular science books’ representations of Karl Popper, Riesch argues that boundary theory and social psychology approaches interconnect and complement each other and shows that the social psychology approaches are helpful towards the formation of an integrated theoretical framework of boundaries. By examining the semicolon tattoo as a boundary object, we can reach both a fuller understanding of how the semicolon tattoo has crossed borders into different groups and media types, as well as begin to expand our understanding of the complexity of a rhetorical boundary object. The next section on material rhetoric further adds to the richness—and complexity—of this examination.
I chose to submit this text—and this section of this text—to the collection, because it was written together with my student intern. What follows is our reflection on this collaborative writing process. While the prose below has been cleaned-up and expanded in places, the discussion points represented here were directly informed by actual comments from the Google Doc we shared while composing the literature review.
Nicole: This article portrays the significance symbolism holds among varying communities. I believe that the representation of the semicolon was discussed successfully. There were examples of initiatives similar to Project Semicolon, which strengthened the argument that symbols have multiple meanings, while also discussing the material rhetoric within these initiatives.
Shannon: I have been lucky enough to work with student research interns for the past four semesters. While I think—and certainly hope—my students benefit from their time with me, I don’t think they realize how much they teach me during our time together as well. I think Nicole is certainly aware of the ways I have benefitted from her work in terms of the concrete ways she has contributed (i.e., finding sources, composing sections of articles like the literature review you see here), but she is likely not aware that I also benefit through her unique and well-informed perspective. It’s always nice to have a second perspective on a piece of writing, but exceptional students like her also challenge my thinking and my assumptions. In reading the comment I’m currently responding to, she has represented the scope of the article accurately, but somewhat differently than I would have. This will help me as I continue to revise this article and try to anticipate the needs of reviews and readers.
Nicole: Prior to creating this piece, I had very little experience writing literature reviews. This was only my second literature review. I previously wrote one other piece for school. This prior experience helped me understand the rules for writing a literature review, such as combining aspects of different sources within the article. This formatting was foreign to me, for I previously only wrote basic MLA-formatted essays. When writing this piece, I incorporated this prior knowledge, strengthening my writing skills as a student. I have since written a few more literature reviews and have gained confidence in my writing capabilities.
Shannon: I choose to include the literature review section of the article here in part because Nicole contributed significantly to it, but also because it represents a genre so many of our students are unfamiliar with. I’ve recently begun teaching the literature review in one of my advanced writing courses, and my students are quite resistant—to put it nicely. I don’t blame them; I didn’t write a literature review until I was in graduate school. My students are capable though, and the vast majority wind up producing very effective literature reviews. What they are missing is familiarity and thus confidence in composing this genre. I’m glad to see that the same seems to hold true for Nicole who has always been a very capable writer, but perhaps lacked some confidence in this still unfamiliar genre.
What also strikes me here is Nicole’s focus on formatting. As someone who focuses on higher order concerns like purpose and audience, formatting hardly enters my mind until it’s time to submit my work. I think in some respect this speaks to Nicole’s diligence as my trusted intern, but also indicates there is more room for growth in terms of familiarity and confidence. Focus on formatting and other issues like information arrangement is reminiscent of the type of procedural approach to writing that Lavelle and Zuercher (2001) claim less experienced students engage in to keep themselves “afloat” (p. 377), trading in personal involvement and risk taking for a more comfortable strict adherence to the rules. This again speaks to the need to increase student familiarity with unfamiliar genres like the literature review so that they might move away from focusing on rules and engage more personally—and critically—with the text.
Nicole: When writing literature reviews, I have some difficulty incorporating different sources into one section of the piece. It is difficult to include multiple sources that have similar connections. This component is an extremely important aspect of composing a literature review. It strengthens the argument and overall theme of the piece. When composing this piece, I made connections by combining facts about IGY6 and Project Semicolon. Both initiatives are similar in nature, relaying their goals through the use of symbolism to target a specific audience. I believe this strengthened the argument that symbols hold various meanings and are fluid in their ability to construct meaning.
Shannon: Putting sources into conversation with each other is one of the most difficult aspects of academic writing for students. While I find other elements of composing the scholarly article more difficult now, this “wrangling” of sources is something that continued to pose a challenge to me well into graduate school. As I reflect on Nicole’s comment, I interpret her challenges here as difficulty in entering the scholarly conversation, the “unending conversation” as Burke’s parlor metaphor so aptly refers to it. As Greene (2001) emphasizes, research is not only collecting information, but discovering its purposeful use in ways that enable entry to the conversation. Participating in the academic conversation, as Nicole learned to do quite well, is something our students need authentic practice doing.
Nicole: The writing and research process of this piece taught me how to write in a way that naturally flows with my thoughts. Introductions to a written piece can be difficult for me because my thoughts are not properly composed, causing me to experience writer’s block. I want my first few sentences to perfectly reveal what I will discuss within the piece. Readers often judge a piece based upon the first few sentences, deciding if they wish to read onward. I am interested in a piece with a captivating introduction paragraph. I attempt to perfect my introductions based upon my own standards as a reader. However, I have learned that it is better to allow yourself to write what you would like to say, and then revise it properly later. As I deepened my understanding of this piece, I used this process of revision to better improve my writing skills and clearly relay the information within this literature review.
Shannon: It really interests me that Nicole places so much emphasis on the introduction. She is right, too, however about the importance of keeping things moving. Looking for perfection at the sentence-level or in one small piece of the paper, such as the introduction, makes us vulnerable to what Elbow would refer to as “premature revising behavior”; similarly, Perl (1979) would caution us that this early focus on revision is likely to interfere with the rhythm of composing. On the other hand, I have found that taking a lot of time and effort to perfect the introduction—as it provides the roadmap for the article—to be something that helps me quite a bit in planning and organizing my manuscripts. While I wouldn’t be so bold as to offer my own experience as a counter to the work of Elbow or Perl, Nicole’s comment leaves me wondering if striving for introduction perfection is perhaps an underappreciated, and potentially useful writing strategy that we should be promoting to more advanced writers.
Nicole: When conducting this research, I found that certain articles fit perfectly with my intended message. From prior research of the Project Semicolon initiative, I understood that the symbol of the semicolon was fluid in nature. This inference allowed me to provide information that coincided with this argument. I believe that the connection of the semicolon tattoos strengthened the idea that individuals can shift identities based upon their perspective of a symbol.
Shannon: Nicole makes an interesting observation here about how prior knowledge enabled her to find and use new sources more effectively. Again, this speaks to the importance of familiarity with the discourse and the importance of experiences like this one, through which I was able to immerse Nicole more fully in the academic writing process. This also brings to mind what I refer to as “reading with specific purpose.” This is the frame of mind from which I approach many of my research projects. By this I mean that I’m looking for sources and aspects of arguments that are directly connected to the work I’m doing. I’m reading to find things I can use. I think this reading strategy lies somewhere between the two ways our students are used to reading: reading to get information without any particular goal and reading to find only points that agree with their argument. Perhaps we need to spend more time with our students on reading strategies!
Nicole: I found the writing process to be difficult at first due to the lack of research regarding the topic of mental health (specifically, symbolic representations of mental health awareness). When conducting this research, I went onto Google Scholar and looked at various articles based upon specific search terms, such as “Project Semicolon,” “Material Rhetoric,” and other topics discussed. I added time constraints to these results for accurate, updated information. The few articles that were found proved credible, as they are newly published and all held similar themes. This lack of research forced me to think outside the box.
I found different search terms and made as many connections as possible. I came to the conclusion that the societal stigma of depression, suicide, and mental health in general should be discussed. This was the primary reason as to why there was little research conducted on these matters. I believe that if there was less of a stigma regarding this topic, there would be much more public research found and included within this piece.
Shannon: The stigma around mental health topics could certainly have been a barrier to Nicole finding quality sources. Part of the reason I engage in the research topics I do is because I feel like it’s one small contribution I can make to ending this stigma. I am also fascinated by the intricacies of how information on mental health topics circulates online and in other contexts. This difficulty finding sources likely also stems from a lack of training. Nicole is an above-average student in every way, and she was able to find quality sources despite it being more difficult than expected. I find, though, that even in teaching my 300- and 400-level courses, many students do not know how to locate a peer-reviewed article, let alone quality articles on very specific topics. This is a complex problem, as I don’t think this training should be the job of any one department or course (like first-year comp, for example), but it needs to be happening. Who is doing or not doing this work, and why? Teaching almost exclusively at the 300 and 400 level I expect my students to know how to find peer reviewed sources, but an alarming number of them do not. I struggle to decide how much explicit instruction I should be giving my upper-level students on research tasks like these.
Nicole: When writing a piece, my goal is to have the writing flow as smoothly as possible. This includes proper connections of different articles that express similar concepts. In this case, the primary concepts I intended to relay included how Project Semicolon, along with the general symbolism of the semicolon, represented suicide and depression awareness. I also wished to discuss the lasting impact this symbol holds in various communities, including those who were not immediately impacted with these mental health struggles. The idea of “reauthoring the future self” connected Project Semicolon’s idea of continuing a story (continuing one’s life) that could have been cut-short or abruptly ended.
Shannon: My experience working in college writing centers makes me flinch when I hear the word “flow.” Students would often come in and tell me they needed help making their paper “flow.” Many times, they didn’t have any idea what they meant by “flow,” nor was “flow” the major issue of their paper. Here, though, Nicole is moving beyond the point that something doesn’t sound right to the need to make connections between sources and between each source and the argument. This is definitely something that needs to be done well for an academic article to meet the expectations of its discourse community. Her identification of this step of the writing process speaks to her growing familiarity with academic writing.
Nicole: Concluding my ideas from my research was an easy process for me. I combined all elements that were previously mentioned, allowing the readers to understand how these sources connected to one another. I concluded my thoughts by describing memorial tattoos many use for their lost loved ones, for it helps with the grieving process while simultaneously raising awareness. I felt that this proved the impact the semicolon symbol held, properly concluding the argument that symbols can hold various meanings.
Shannon: I’m glad to hear Nicole recognize the conclusion as an easy part of her writing process. To be clear, her work included concluding the literature review, not the article itself, so in her case it speaks to the focus and the strong connections she made between her sources as well as each source and the argument, a task she mentioned was a focus of hers in an earlier comment. Concluding a paper as a whole relies on similar writing moves, which Nicole is probably even better positioned to now do well.
Composing the literature review with Nicole for use in my paper on Project Semicolon has proven an enlightening experience on multiple counts. I was able to offer her an insider look at the academic writing process, while also deconstructing the literature review into discrete pieces and tasks that she was easily able to master. At the same time, Nicole offered me valuable assistance with locating and summarizing sources, as well as composing sections of the literature review that put those sources into conversation with each other. Working with Nicole and several other interns over recent semesters has forced me to take a critical look at my own research practices and composing techniques. By articulating these more explicitly, I’ve had no choice but to engage in the kind of self-reflective work we often require our students do. I am happy to report, then, that this work has been challenging, but useful, forcing me to examine my own assumptions and shortcoming as both a writer and researcher.
As for the composition of the literature review, I will end with another one of Nicole’s apt observations: “The combination of the different viewpoints of Nicole and Shannon strengthened the piece, as it allowed for there to be a dissection of the intricacy within the construction of this literature review.”
Burke, Kenneth (1941). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford University Press.
Greene, Stuart (2001). “Argument as Conversation: The Role of Inquiry in Writing a Researched Argument.” The Subject Is Research. Ed. Wendy Bishop and Pavel Zemliansky. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 145–164.
Lavelle, E., & Zuercher, N. (2001). The writing approaches of university students. Higher Education, 42(3), 373–391.
Perl, S. (1980). Understanding composing. College Composition and Communication, 31(4), 363–369.
- This literature review continues on to a section on material rhetoric and then concludes. Our excerpt has been made to meet length allowed. ↵