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Tarsa, Rebecca. Online Interface as Exordium. CE, Sept. 2015. Posted 09/29/2015.

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Tarsa, Rebecca. “Upvoting the Exordium: Literacy Practices of the Digital Interface.” College English 78.1 (2015):12-33. Print.

Rebecca Tarsa proposes strategies for creating an effective “exordium” for writing classrooms by examining how the digital interface works as an exordium in online participatory sites in which students voluntarily contribute writing. She draws on Teena Carnegie’s work to argue that the interface of an online site meets Cicero’s definition of the exordium as an appeal designed to “make the listener ‘well-disposed, attentive, and receptive’ to the ensuring speech” (25). In the case of an online site, the interface as exordium accomplishes this goal by “project[ing] to users the potential for interactivity within the site that matches their desired engagement while also supporting the ends of the site itself” (25-26).

To determine how interfaces affect students’ writing decisions, Tarsa drew on interviews with thirty students at two institutions, one a two-year college and the other a research university (15). The students were members of the general-education population and not necessarily advanced online writers (16). Using grounded theory methodology, Tarsa developed her observations after coding the interviews (16-17). More than three-quarters of the students voluntarily raised the issue of the effects of a site’s interface, leading Tarsa to recognize it as an important element in students’ online participation (17). She notes that her conclusions about student activities were based on self-report and cannot be considered generalizable, but argues that using “students’ own perceptions” is valuable because it provides useful additions to “our understanding of digital participatory cultures” (18).

Tarsa introduces the concept of “affordances,” which she defines as “the potential interaction offered to users by a tool or feature of a site’s interface” (18). She focuses on two kinds of affordances, “[e]ntry” and “qualitative” (18, 22). Entry affordances, she writes, affect student decisions about participation long before they have accessed any content. Such affordances involve the appearance of a site, which the students Tarsa interviewed often seemed to judge as inviting or uninviting, perhaps ‘boring” (student, qtd. in Tarsa 19). A second important feature of an interface that influences participation is the registration process, if one is in place. Tarsa found that students might use a site extensively yet resist the step of signing up, in some cases because they felt they already had too many accounts and passwords (20). Tarsa found that “usability” was not a determining factor in students’ decisions; rather, they were likely to judge whether or not a particular feature or requirement was “useful” (20). For example, acquiring the ability to access a site on a mobile device was useful to some of the students interviewed (20-21).

Students who ultimately decided to register, Tarsa reports, tended to do so either because they “had something in particular they wanted to contribute” or because “they wanted to customize their interface experience or vote on content” (21). In such cases, the students had regularly visited the sites before deciding to sign up. She posits that although a desire to write was not necessarily the primary motivation, having registered cleared the way for future engagement, for example writing (21).

Tarsa depicts “qualitative affordances” as invitations to interact, initially through voting on the quality of content. She writes that such judgments of quality can involve sharing, “liking” (a “one-way” judgment), or voting up or down (a “two-way” assessment) (22). Tarsa argues that the ability to vote offers users a safe, visible, easy-to-use means of becoming a contributor to an online community. Such actions by users become a form of agency, as audiences determine what content will become successful.

The existence of qualitative affordances, Tarsa posits, is one factor in overcoming users’ resistance to entry affordances, like registration (23). Eliminating this resistance positions users to take the next step of writing. Regular involvement in voting activities “create[s] higher levels of comfort with and investment in a site overall” (24), necessary components if a user is going to risk the “range of anxieties” (23) inherent in writing. Thus, the ability to vote on content drew the students Tarsa interviewed into sites where “all but one” of those who had registered for the purpose of voting “eventually went on to participate within those sites via writing” (23).

Invoking Carnegie’s theory, Tarsa proposes that the work of motivating writing begins with the features of the interface working as exordium, particularly in promising and facilitating the “interactivity” that leads to a sense of “connection” and “acceptance” (Carnegie, qtd. in Tarsa 26). Interacting with other users through the qualitative affordances enabled by the interface leads writers to an awareness of audiences beyond their immediate sphere (28). While the threat of being voted down may discourage some writing, in Tarsa’s view, the familiarity with interaction that results from these affordances is more likely to encourage writing than to “quash” it (27). She notes that a particular exordium will not appeal to every user; each online culture competes with so others that any site seeking to prompt participation must hone its interface with careful attention to its intended audience (26-27).

Tarsa sees challenges in creating a classroom exordium that makes use of the features that interfaces provide in online cultures. She states that the ability to write on impulse with little cost or risk fuels participation in online interaction; this “spontaneity” is difficult to reproduce in the classroom (29). Options like blogging, while promising, must be designed so as to reduce entry barriers like “schedul[ing] time to write the assigned post, navigat[ing] to the site, and log[ging] in before they can write” (29). Making entry routines part of a regular class day is one possible step toward encouraging participation. Similarly, class discussion does not mimic the interactivity offered by qualitative affordances because of the risk speaking up poses and its inability to indicate spontaneous reactions.

Tarsa suggests incorporating versions of more popular qualitative affordances like “liking” or supplying links to related material into such activities as selection of material for a digital bibliography (29-30). Finally, the features of online participatory sites can play “an ongoing part in rhetorical inquiry” into “the relationship between author and audience” (30). In Tarsa’s view, such efforts to exploit the features of the online exordium that invite writing can also encourage it in classrooms.

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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