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Opel and Rhodes. User-Centered Design in the Writing Classroom. C&C, in press. Posted 09/09/2018.

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Opel, Dawn S., and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Beyond Student as User: Rhetoric, Multimodality, and User-Centered Design.” Computers and Composition (in press) (2017): xxx. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.

Dawn S. Opel and Jacqueline Rhodes write about the complexities that arise when rhetoric and composition incorporates the principles of user-centered design (UCD) into pedagogical methodologies.

Interest in UCD follows from the work of scholars on usability in technical communication, who, the authors note, have addressed the concept of usability as a process of “design and testing of digital technologies” (1). Because technical communication shares affinities with rhetoric and composition, concepts like UCD have migrated into writing pedagogy (2). Opel and Rhodes are concerned that this migration has been accepted uncritically and urge a closer look at how UCD can best enhance the values and goals of current rhetoric and composition theory and instruction (3, 7). They offer a heuristic for adopting UCD to the composition classroom.

According to Opel and Rhodes, industry has incorporated UCD into the larger construct of “user experience” (UX), a term that draws on a number of fields, including market research, branding, psychology, anthropology, library science, software design, and graphic arts, as well as others (2). Technical communication scholar Michael Salvo advanced an early definition of UCD as “a process of collecting data from users, creating feedback in the form of information, and then delivering that information to designers” (qtd. in Opel and Rhodes 2). Writing more recently within the field of UX, Jesse James Garrett offers what the authors call an “extend[ed]” notion of UCD as “the practice of creating engaging, efficient user experiences” (qtd. in Opel and Rhodes 2). The authors see this latter approach as more concerned with making room for user input during design (2).

Opel and Rhodes see problems with such efforts to import UCD into rhetoric and composition because of differences in the underlying philosophies and theoretical approaches. They note that many of the fields from which UX, and by extension UCD, draws are “positivist” in nature, valorizing universal optimal designs (3). The authors cite scholarship from composition scholars acknowledging disjunction among three “competing mentalities” (Keith Garrison, qtd. in Opel and Rhodes 3): “the scientist, philosopher, and rhetorician” (3). This competition makes an affiliation between the positivist bent of UCD and the de-centered, constructivist values of composition problematic (3).

Opel and Rhodes write that a too-facile adoption of UCD principles can ignore the distinction between “user” and “learner” (4). The authors suggest a comparison with the approach taken in engineering pedagogy, which has assimilated tenets of “learner-centered design” (LCD) from the field of education (3). Resembling composition’s concept of active learning, LCD brings into UCD the components of “role-playing, case-based learning, project-based learning, and reflection” (3).

The authors advance their discussion of concerns about UCD in composition by exploring their understanding of rhetoric as ethics. They note that “the concept of UX has emerged in disciplinary conversations, bridging rhetoric, the digital humanities, and UCD” (4). Citing Jesse Stommel’s work on the digital humanities, the authors contend that the goal of this field is “not the creation of an effective system,” but rather “a purposeful breaking” (5) that functions as “an ethical interrogation, if not intervention” (4) into any system that purports to erase cultural differences (5). Arguing that rhetoric is about the relations within a system rather than the structure of the system itself, the authors draw on Kenneth Burke’s claims that all choices and actions have ethical consequences and result from the ethical decisions made by agents (5). In the authors’ view, “Designers, writers, users, and readers, then, can act . . . for ethical or unethical purposes” (5).

From this perspective, compositionists who import UCD into classroom practice have an ethical responsibility to interrogate what the authors see as “an ethic of expediency and efficiency” (6; emphasis original) that arrives via the industry-based vocabulary in which actors’ decisions are “tied inextricably to accumulation of capital” (4). Opel and Rhodes write that compositionists can too easily become like “contemporary UX professionals, who conduct research on consumers/users, rather than design in concert with users . . . in participatory design frameworks” (6).

As an alternative for composition instruction, the authors propose a “theory+play” methodology that sees students as active participants in design, simultaneously recuperating the emphasis on “learner” that “user” tends to elide (7). In this view, multimodal composition, as understood in the field, offers scope for play in that it provides opportunities for “remix and mashup” (6) that accord with the idea of play as defined by Jody Shipka: a process of “purposeful choosing, adaptation, and material flexibility” (qtd. in Opel and Rhodes 7). In such play, the authors contend, actors can ask “what-if questions,” imagine new “realities,” and explore how choices constrain and enable action (7). This approach, in the authors’ view inherent in multimodality, “emphasiz[es] agency rather than reception on the part of students” (7).

Consonant with the emphasis on play is the concept of “speculative design,” which moves from a product intended to meet a predetermined goal to a process that explores what is possible, with the focus more on the “discussion” than the product (7).

The authors note that it is common to think of design as “problem solving” (9). They address, however, the issue of what happens when the problems faced by cultures today do not admit of solutions. In this respect, they argue for rhetoric understood as “embodied, relational, ethical, and playful” (7). They draw on Burke’s comic frame as a foundation for such rhetoric, in that it “insists on the continued responsiveness/responsibility of interactants” (7). Multimodal play, then, constitutes a rhetorical act in which students take responsibility for their purposes and choices and the consequences of their activities as “co-creators/designers of discourse operating in complex public spheres” (8).

The authors’ heuristic for incorporating UCD into the classroom provides seven tenets. Several of these address the need for interrogation of “industry rhetoric” as it extols “expediency, efficiency, engagement” (8). Other principles ask for examination of factors like “the cultural systems of normativity” that commonly drive design when it is seen as problem-solving (8).

Opel and Rhodes suggest that these principles follow from a view of design as an act that recognizes its rhetorical nature and that further takes on the inevitable ethical component of all rhetorics as, in Burke’s formulation, “rhetoric,” “persuasion,” and “meaning” (6) are inextricably linked to the purposeful acts of intentional agents. For Opel and Rhodes, UCD that truly positions students as co-designers can enable students to understand their responsibilities within such roles.

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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