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Kairos’s Origin Story

As we prepared to post a few weeks ago, we realized that while we had discussed Kairos’s origin story in our very first meeting about the Kairos Book, we had not committed it to video in full, nor written it down in any concrete way. This post helps us rectify that.
Four logos from Kairos 1.1 in multiple electric colors layered on top of a photo of 7 white staff members
A selection of CoverWeb images from the first year of the journal, plus a photo from C&W 1996 featuring several of the 1.1 issue editors and authors.

As we prepared to post a few weeks ago, we realized that while we had discussed Kairos’s origin story in our very first meeting about the Kairos Book, we had not committed it to video in full, nor written it down in any concrete way. One reason is that the origin of the journal is not our story to tell—it belongs to other people in the field at a time when neither of us were present. (Doug and Cheryl both get mistaken for being founding editors of the journal[1], but neither of us were on staff then despite the dinosaur decades we’ve been on staff since.) However, as editors for so many years, we have been called on to retell this origin story many times, in many forms and media. Retelling the story is fundamental to the ethos of the journal, its mission, and to the development and solidification of digital writing studies as an in-discipline with stable journals that have specific areas of research. This post, then, is an effort to summarize Kairos’s origin story and to include links to several original sources that speak directly to this history from those who were present and responsible for its founding.

The keyword here is “Hootie.”

Every time we talk about Kairos’s founding, it starts with this story:

It all happened on the way to a Hootie and the Blowfish concert…

And that fact gets people every time! But, of course! Why would the founding of Kairos be any less absurd and fun than tracing its origin to a passing conversation on the way to a concert?!

The details of this story include the following: Mick Doherty, who we believe[2] had just begun his PhD coursework in rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was home for the summer. He was from Bowling Green, Ohio, and had recently graduated with a masters in rhetoric from Bowling Green State University. In early August 1995, he drove to Ann Arbor to pick up Becky Rickly, then an early-career faculty member in English Composition at University of Michigan, so they could make their way to East Lansing, Michigan, to see Hootie and the Blowfish. No one knows why it had to be Hootie.

As they neared the campus of Michigan State, they got stuck in traffic. Mick recalled—in “Kairos: Past, Present and Future(s) ,” a webtext co-authored with Michael Salvo and published in the 7.x issue of Kairos—that Becky took those moments to wonder out loud: “What do you think a journal for the kind of work we're doing would look like?” (doherty5.htm).

The “kind of work we’re doing” included early-era hypertext based on hypertext theory, among other theoretical work in writing studies—early writing for the Web, as the World Wide Web was merely a year old at that point. As we have described it innumerable times since being on staff, the idea was to start a journal where digital writing scholars could enact the kind of hypertextual research they were doing through the medium of hypertext: a publication venue where form and content aligned.

What we are unsure of, however, is how quickly this idea for a journal came together or whether it was already in the works, in some fashion, before this pre-Hootie scene. Accounts differ—how’s that for passive voice?—on the actual timeline in which Kairos was made manifest. What we do know is that

  • Founding Editor Mick Doherty had been working on John December’s Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine for a while already, gaining ideas that transferred to his work on Kairos (see A Chronology of Digital Publication, Part 1).
  • Graduate students who would become the first group of Kairos staff members talked about starting an online journal for writing studies during a Conference and College Composition and Communication (CCCC) party in late March 1995, in Washington, DC[3].
  • Mick and Becky’s concert trip to see Hootie was August 8, 1995[4].
  • Kairos was first published in January 1996[5].

What these facts leave us wondering is whether the idea to make Kairos a born-digital journal came after the idea to start a new online journal in writing studies had already been decided. It seems likely. And, if that’s the case, then the staff had only five months to get the entire premise off the ground—from the introduction of making Kairos born-digital to publication. That’s a feat only accomplishable by grad students and very early-career faculty, to be honest. And explains the history and importance of all-nighters in the early publication of the journal.

Early issues of the journal do make clear that the founding editorial staff made some key decisions that aimed to balance the traditions of print publication and the affordances of the web—like choosing to publish regular issues as opposed to rolling publication, recognizing peer-review as a key function of academic publishing, and the value of collaborating with some "big names" early as a means to build readership. You can also see that the constraints of the new medium were also at play, as there were not as many images or interactive features and the main born-digital qualities were related to building non-linear paths through the webtexts via links. Indeed, exploring the enactment of hypertext theory and practice was a driving force behind many of the decisions about infrastructure.

Mick continued as Editor through the Spring 1998 issue, after which Greg Siering, another inaugural editor (originally serving in the short-lived post of Links Editor), guided the fall 1998 issue to completion. Greg stepped down to complete his dissertation, and Doug stepped in as Editor starting with issue 4.1. This period felt somewhat unstable, and shortly afterward, we established co-editorships of the main editing positions and later applied the same model to the journal's sections, which has turned out to work well both in terms of shared labor and for developing a model of sustainable leadership and paths to move into leadership positions.

Mick passed away in October of 2013, but his spirit and good humor remain central to the ethos of the journal. In Mick’s absence, we reached out to several inaugural staff members (as mentioned in earlier footnotes) in early November 2023, including Johndan Johnson-Eilola, who was an editorial board member since the first issue[6] and who had published a Features webtext there as well. We had asked, “Do you recall what kind of timeline you were working with for that first piece? Any tips/memories/half-remembrances would help us trace this path in Mick’s absence.” Johndan responded immediately, on November 8, saying,

I can’t point to anything specific, but it does seem like the process was pretty rushed. Of course at that point in my career I was an untenured professor at Purdue, so everything seemed pretty rushed. Normally I’d check my email archives, but they don’t go back that far. I can’t wait to read the origin story—I’m assuming someone involved kept better records than me.

It was a shock to learn that Johndan had unexpectedly passed away four days later on November 12, 2023. We are sad he didn’t get to read this version of the origin story, a story he and so many others helped craft. Indeed, Johndan, nobody kept good records, and that’s why we’ve finally written this post—the most formal history of Kairos's origin story that we have.

And, so again, finally: Alongside working on the history of Digital Publication, Part II—Writing Studies journals (in a forthcoming post), we realized that even though we have a fairly significant body of work on the history of this journal (see links below for a selection), many other key journals in the field haven't had their histories written yet—and this appears to also be true of early born-digital journals in other fields as well. So we'd like to encourage the folks who started these journals to consider writing up their histories, either formally as oral histories in interviews or other in formats.

Resources on the History of Kairos

For more on the history of Kairos, dive into the following webtexts where both Kairos editors and outside observers have recorded some of our stories:

Mick Doherty: "As We May Link: From the Editor's Desk(top)"

Kairos Editors and Friends: "In Memoriam, Mick Doherty"

Mick Doherty and Michael Salvo: "Kairos Past, Present, and Futures"

Tracy Bridgeford: "Kairotically Speaking: Kairos and the Power of Identity"

Jim Kalmbach: "Reading the Archives: Ten Years of Nonlinear (Kairos) History"

Doug Eyman: "The Arrow and the Loom"

Cheryl Ball: "On the 20th Anniversary of Kairos"


  • 11/22/2023 - updates made to Becky Rickly's faculty status at the time of the Hootie concert and to footnote 3 re the CCCC party purpose.

  1. While not one of the founding editors, Doug's very academic publication appeared in issue 1.1 (a review of a hypertext collection and a report from the newly formed CWTA—Computers and Writing TA Association) and his first peer-reviewed publication appeared in issue 1.2, which allowed him to experience the non-anonymous, collaborative peer-review process that is one of the journal's key innovations (and, we would say, key strengths). He joined the editorial staff and was trained on the journal's processes during the publication of issue 1.3 and officially became CoverWeb editor, taking over for Michael Salvo as he moved into a Managing Editor role, with issue 2.1. Cheryl’s first academic publication was also in Kairos, but she didn’t join the staff (as a CoverWeb editor) until 2001. ↩︎
  2. Becky reminded us of Mick’s PhD exam defense, Shooting Hoops, which was held via email and published online in RhetNet in March 1997, and which indicates that he probably started RPI in the Fall of 1995. ↩︎
  3. Doug Eyman was present at this party. He initially thought it was a Kairos party, but after we fact-checked the Hootie dates and cross-checked earlier possible Michigan options with Becky Rickly, we determined that the party Doug attended at CCCC—where he heard graduate students (including Elizabeth Pass, Amy Hanson, and others, who would later become inaugural Kairos staffers) talking about starting a journal—wasn’t specifically a Kairos party. We then figured it may have been a Michigan Tech party, which would have been one of a few, popular group gatherings during CCCC in those days. Because, really, you can’t go wrong with beer and smoked white fish from Peterson’s. After we published this piece originally, Jo Koster reached out to us via Facebook to suggest that it was a 4Cs Bibliographers party hosted by Cindy Selfe (so the whitefish story still holds, as Cindy was faculty at Michigan Tech at the time), and Cindy gave this version the thumbs up. ↩︎
  4. How do we know this? Fact-checking!

    Through a stroke of Internet genius, there is a website called Concert Archives that lists every concert some bands have played, including the entire roster of public shows (660 as of this writing) for Hootie and the Blowfish, dating back to 1991. By searching for “Michigan” during the 1994 and 1995 years, we uncovered three possible dates in 1995 that Mick and Becky could have seen Hootie perform. We were attempting to fact-check Doug’s knowledge about attending a 1995 CCCC in March with Kairos staffers alongside Mick’s published narrative about attending the concert with Becky to check on the order of events.

    With only Becky left to confirm any details of that fateful concert day, she was able to tell us two important facts: (1) It was warm enough that they were able to sit outside on a blanket (thus suggesting an outdoor venue), and (2) Hootie was the only performance they saw that night (suggesting that there were no other headliners). These two facts helped us discount the possibilities that Mick and Becky would have attended either the Detroit shows, held in February of that year at the Fox Theater, or the Grand Rapids show held in March (prior to CCCC), which also included co-headliners Toad the Wet Sprocket. Thus, by deduction (and that the Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing has a large outdoor greenspace next to it), we confirmed that they attended the August 8, 1995 show.

    (We later found that Mick had also written, buried in an early Logging On column, “The title [of the journal] is intentionally ambiguous, and it has been ever since Becky Rickly and I started dreaming up the possibilities of a journal like this one at a Hootie and the Blowfish concert in East Lansing, Michigan, late in the summer of 1995. That's another story, of course.” A story we are here to tell!) ↩︎
  5. We used to quite strongly relay—based on an email Doug had saved from one of the H-Net listservs announcing the inaugural publication of Kairos—that the first issue was published on January 1, 1996. However, in a recent email conversation with Michael Salvo, who was the founding CoverWeb Editor/Managing Editor and an author in the first issue, we were told that Salvo and Doherty (or Mike and Mick, as they were then referred to) “did a series of all nighters in January ’96” to get the first issue ready for publication.

    Salvo recounted in an email in early November 2023 that staff were invited to join Kairos in August 1995 and that he attended the NCTE Conference on Assigning and Responding to Student Writing at Colgate College mere days later. En route to the conference, Michael "accosted Andrea Lunsford on a 16 seater plane headed to Pittsburgh where she put down her copy of Wired long enough to give me her keynote address from Colgate, which contained 75–80% of what became "What Matters Who Writes/Responds."

    Michael shared with us his recollection of the design, policy, and production work of that first issue and gave us permission to share it here:

    Between August and October, we had numerous meetings and mapped structures and early procedures, eventually deciding on the non-blind peer review and CoverWeb, which I offered to lead. We had a few smaller pieces and wanted to stitch them together into a meaningful “first.” Mick wanted to continue the RhetNet “continuously publishing” model, but put a start and end date on it, a capitulation (recognition?) that [Nick] Carbone and [Eric] Crump’s process was too outside the publishing model to really work. Mick adapted many procedures like this and made them work.

    So between November and January, I worked with Jane Lasarenko, Suzan Moody, Stuart Blythe, J. Paul Johnson, and Camille Langston and had email back and forth with Lee Honeycutt and Amy Hanson to get peer review back in time for edits prior to publication. January 26th was the publication date Mick decided on (I think RPI’s spring quarter began the week after?). No edits after January 8 sticks in my mind, but I think I was making edits until the 24th as I had access as managing editor to the HTML files (and got yelled at every time—Mick looked at the last edit time stamps every time he opened a document). I very clearly remember collapsing at around 3 am on the morning of the 26th with everything going live and then waking up around 10 or 11am and heading out for bagels in Troy, NY. After bagels and coffee, Mick’s blood sugar readings were astronomical and that’s his shrug I recorded in my memorial to him [in the photo from
    Mick’s memorial in the Logging On column after his passing]. We watched the first hits on the journal and made some post-publication typo corrections (I remember finding a bunch in Michael Joyce and students’ piece because—if I remember rightly—it was a late addition and we had only received it days before publication).

    All-nighters are part of Kairos’s origin story, and also part of its continuation story. In the 20th anniversary issue of Kairos, Cheryl wrote in the Logging On column about the staff’s transition to a new communication platform, rather than back and forth emails, and she wistfully remarked, “No more of these last-minute, late-night editing adventures—which is sad in itself, since Kairos has such a long tradition of them!” The last-minute crunch between the senior staff readying the journal for publication has, perhaps, finally been put to bed, thanks to our more rigorous processes and extensive workflows, as well as an increase in editors who are better at planning ahead, keeping on deadline, and ensuring smooth labor practices for the staff. But sometimes, Cheryl still admits that she misses those late-night rushes to publication and the hundreds of back-n-forth emails with Doug. ↩︎
  6. Bill Hart-Davidson and Jeff Galin are the only other editorial board members (that we know of) who have served for the entire history of the journal to date. ↩︎