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

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.


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Colby, Rebekah Shultz. Games as Pedagogical Tools. C&C, 2017. Posted 05/11/2017.

Colby, Rebekah Shultz. “Game-based Pedagogy in the Writing Classroom.” Computers and Composition 43 (2017): 55-72. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.

Rebekah Shultz Colby conducted a series of interviews to determine how writing teachers use video games as teaching tools in their classrooms; she asked as well about their “rationales” for using games (55).

Colby located 24 teachers who use games in writing classrooms via a “purposeful snowball technique” (59), asking colleagues in various venues if they knew of anyone teaching with games; she also posted an invitation to the Facebook group “Academic Gamers” (60). She used this method in preference to posting on more widely based listservs because scholarship on the use of games suggested that she would find very few teachers using games through conventional sources (60).

She cites as a primary motivation for her study providing more teachers with the resources to use games. In her view, teachers avoid using games because there are no textbooks or other kinds of apparatus dedicated to this pedagogy, because most scholarship on the topic has consisted of isolated case studies, and because articles reviewing the use of games in classrooms neglects games as tools for specifically teaching writing (58). Thus, for Colby, teachers are discouraged from using games because they lack a sense of the many different options and trends in gaming as a pedagogical resource. Further, teachers may find the complexity of games and the lack of support daunting, especially if they are not gamers themselves (59).

Colby argues that using games provides “rich pedagogical opportunities” (59) such as the exploration of “richly multimodal spaces that incorporate visual, aural, written, spatial, and kinesthetic modes” (56) that create true multimodality because the different modes “remediate” each other rather than standing inertly in relation to each other (56).

She further advocates for games as teaching tools by stressing how they function as “complex systems” that encourage “systemic thinking: how one person’s actions can affect the entire system” (56). Moreover, she contends, as nonlinear experiences, games inspire exploration and experimentation, including “emergent play” in which gamers change or subvert the rules and ostensible goals of the designers. This kind of play can become “potentially resistant” as students enact the theories incorporated into the game as “set[s] of domains or systems of meaning making” (56). Colby argues, for example, that diverse gender roles in games can “embody for students both queer and feminist theory” (57).

Further, Colby maintains that the “paratexts” surrounding game design and play—“walk-throughs, FAQ guides, tutorials, and online discussion forums”—provide opportunities for analyzing and practicing technical writing genres (57). Colby notes that both games and classrooms are “activity systems” with their own rules and purposes (57); whereas classrooms, as specific activity systems, often conflict with the very different extra-academic systems teachers hope to integrate into coursework, games are just such a system that engages students beyond the classroom via processes with which they are already familiar (57).

In coding interviews, Colby detected “seven overarching approaches” used by teachers who teach with games (60). “Game Rhetorical Analysis” allows teachers to introduce study of “communicative affordances and constraints” as well as shifts in audiences as factors in the “meaning and persuasiveness” embodied by in a game (61). Rhetorical analysis also includes the concept of “procedurality” (61), which includes awareness of how specific procedures “position players in specific ways” (61), for example by forcing players to adopt specific personas subject to procedural limitations. Students can also be encouraged to consider ways in which procedures can be “broken” as a critical response to this positioning, a possibility that Colby feels is specific to games as rhetorical encounters (62).

“Composing New Texts: Game Design” is an approach that asks students to develop their own persuasive or educational games (62). A variation involves asking students to recast a written text as a game. Further, game design as a teaching tool can draw students into an enactment of “new media theory” about the role and function of multimodality as well as aspects of design itself, such as those delineated by Robin Williams (63).

Under the approach titled “Games Illustrate Theory,” Colby includes teachers who use games to introduce students to cultural and critical theory (63). Games “interpolate players in certain ways” (63), and a particular assignment that constrains students followed by classroom discussion of how such positioning affects choices can make students more aware of how such Foucauldian “disciplining” works in other systems and contexts (64). One teacher quoted by Colby writes that games “often hail players as individuals, promising them the ultimate in agency, but only if they consent to consume the games in very specific ways” (63).

“Writing with Game Industry Genres” exploits the range of “paratexts” involved in game design and dissemination. Cobly argues that students working on talk-aloud protocols and usability testing can explore how their writing is taken up and used within the “gaming discourse communities” (64).

“Games as a Research and Writing Space” (64) denotes classroom activities in which students investigate specific questions, such as gendered behavior among gamers, and share their results with widely networked gaming audiences, garnering feedback and “a deeper identification with role of researcher” (65).

In “Games Enhance Writing Transfer,” Colby describes teachers using reflection to encourage students to consider what skills they learned from playing games and how these skills might be employed in other contexts (65-66). Similarly, students can compare composing in a game setting with composing other forms of communication and can understand such abstract concepts as kairos by studying how games and their paratexts evolve across rhetorical situations. Some teacher use games to develop reading comprehension, while others find games useful in introducing students to the complexities of collaboration, both in play and in design (66).

Finally, some teachers developed strategies of “Gamification,” in which they converted learning experiences into games, exploiting games’ intrinsic motivation, “positive emotions,” and “sense of accomplishment” to encourage learning. Colby contrasts this use of game structure for learning with “Pointsification,” in which teachers allow students to work for points as they would in games, perhaps even allowing avatars to “die” if enough points are lost (67). Colby cites critique of such systems as providing primarily extrinsic motivation, noting that while participation in an activity may increase while points are being accumulated, in one study, “students stopped using the app once they had accomplished the achievements” (67).

Colby’s quantitative results suggest that games contributed most often to rhetorical analysis and least often to specific ways to encourage “transfer about aspects of the writing process” (68). Colby advocates a clear understanding of the kinds of outcomes being stressed and the importance of incorporating games for a specific purpose rather than just for their own sake (68). She provides suggestions to help teachers become more confident in their own identities as gamers and to include minority students who may not identify with the gaming culture (68-69).


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Dush, Lisa. When Writing Becomes Content. CCC, Dec. 2015. Posted 02/21/2016.

Dush, Lisa. “When Writing Becomes Content.” College Composition and Communication 67.2 (2015): 173-96. Print.

Lisa Dush compares the concept of “writing” that has historically grounded writing studies to the new forms of written communication engendered by technological change. In these new forms of communication, what has always been thought of as writing must now be understood by keeping in mind its nature as “content.” Extant ideas of what “writing” means, she contends, should not “be erased”; rather, the field should understand and acknowledge the tensions created by writing’s migration into new spaces and forms (183).

Dush argues that “writing” and “content” are metaphors with “attendant bundles”; those surrounding writing can be hard to identify (179). For Dush, writing implies an “agentive composer” producing what Jodie Nicotra calls a “discrete textual object” (181); an audience that can be analyzed and known to some degree (177); specific spaces; and specific and known social and professional roles such as “author, editor, and publisher” or relationships such as “famous author to fan, good writer to bad” (179-80). For Dush, this metaphor does not capture the emergent features of writing for digital spaces and does not furnish the conceptual tools to adequately critique or respond to the changes (181).

Dush defines “content” as “conditional, computable, networked, and commodified” (176; emphasis original). “Conditional,” she writes, refers to the degree to which creators of texts cannot easily know exactly where and how their work will be used; content is “characterized not by being finished or published, but rather by [its] availability for repurposing, mining, and other future uses” (176). It is “computable” in the sense that it is composed of numeric data, a form that allows “machine audiences” to “mine, rank, process, match, reconfigure, and redistribute it” (176); its format may change and fragments might appear in such places as search-engine lists (177).

“Networked” denotes the relationship of content not to the “speaker-audience dyad of classical rhetoric” but rather to audiences so vast as to call for machine analysis; because the audience cannot be authoritatively known, texts must tend toward “adaptation” to various audiences rather than “prediction” of an ideal fit (177). Dush cites Clay Shirky to note that the networked nature of content favors the production of more rather than less text, and “more arguably, democratic participation over hierarchy” (177).

Finally, content is “commodified.” Dush builds on John Trimbur’s distinction between “use value— . . . how well a thing meets human needs— and exchange value—value based on profit” (178; emphasis original). She illustrates this feature by noting that a tweet is not valued for its utility but for “the number of clicks and retweets it accumulates,” thus metamorphosing into advertising revenue (178).

Dush argues that recent attention to multimodal composition has not abandoned the metaphorical implications of “writing” as opposed to “content” (181), an approach that is not attuned to “what Jim Ridolfo and Danielle Nicole DeVoss call ‘rhetorical velocity'” (qtd. in Dush 182): that is, the rapid circulation of material via the manipulation of managers and strategists, both human and machine. Dush points to the ways in which this shift from “writing” to “content” risks a “disempowered” view of writers (183). She quotes Rahel Anne Bailie and Noz Urbina, authors of Content Strategy: Connecting the Dots Between Business, Brand, and Benefits, who recite a list of the ways that “[w]riters can’t be expected to be experts” and should therefore be subordinated to managers versed in content manipulation (qtd. in Dush 184). Dush responds that writing-studies professionals should take up this challenge: “[T]o avoid being written out of the work of writing, perhaps writers must indeed become experts at working with writing-as-content” (184). Such a focus, she argues, should be part of the curriculum at all levels of writing instruction (184).

This refocus, she writes, should embrace the fact that some of this approach already appears in some writing curricula, and, moreover, central aspects of writing-as-content lend themselves to applications and critiques grounded in rhetorical theory (184-85). She examines the “quad,” a figure from Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach’s Content Strategy for the Web, that surrounds a “core strategy” with four quadrants: substance, structure, workflow, and governance (185-86). Substance, Dush states, involves choices about the appropriate information in a message; she relates structure to James E. Porter’s arguments addressing the relation of circulation to delivery and cites work “in writing studies about composing in networked space” (187). Workflow and governance are the “people components” that echo writing studies’ emphasis on the “social and material nature of writing” (188).

Dush suggests that in considering where elements of content management are already being taught, for example in technical communication and in courses such as Writing for the Web, compositionists can move beyond document design to considerations of platforms and the rhetorical concerns that arise as information moves across them (188). Course designers should consider including more “content” vocabulary both in curricula and in course titles in order “to better signal to employers that our students are prepared to do content work” (189). Multimodal courses can move beyond applications that limit students’ ability to apply strategies central to content creation like tagging and search-engine optimization (189).

Dush addresses challenges raised by the shift to “content” such as inadequate working conditions imposed by the need to be constantly connected to social media and the disparity between the “humanistic” values of writing studies and the profit- and efficiency-driven impulses of the content-oriented workplace (191). She sees as important concerns the degree to which writing itself may be “devalued” and the possible corollary that writing as traditionally understood will no longer be “a feasible profession” (191).

For Dush, in order to foster the values of writing studies while addressing the shift to content, the field should determine appropriate “core strateg[ies]” to place at the center of Halvorson and Rach’s quad. Using knowledge of content management to further humanistic organizations and causes, developing critical language to interrogate such phenomena as the effects on working conditions and consequences for users, and resisting the naturalization of the changing relations between writers and industry should direct the field’s response to the shift (192-93). Ultimately, Dush writes

the risks of ignoring writing-as-content or, likewise, dismissing it, are that we may miss an important opportunity to expand the conceptual, research, and pedagogical purview of writing studies in ways that are appropriate to the digital age. (193)

 


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Gruwell, Leigh. Wikipedia’s Gender-Gap Problem. C&C, May 2015. Posted 08/19/15.

Gruwell, Leigh. “Wikipedia’s Politics of Exclusion: Gender, Epistemology, and Feminist Rhetorical (In)action.” Computers and Composition 37 (2015): 117-31. Web. 28 july 2015.

Leigh Gruwell examines Wikipedia’s “gender-gap problem,” the fact that only 13% of its editors are female. Gruwell recounts interviews with three women who regularly contribute to Wikipedia to argue that a number of aspects of the Wikipedia process are not welcoming to women.

Gruwell reports that Wikipedia is widely used by both men and women and has earned the approval of a number of composition scholars who see it as “a collaborative site of writing and knowledge production that emphasizes revision and challenges traditional models of textual authority and authorship” (117). Compositionists have valued wiki technology in general and have incorporated Wikipedia into classroom assignments (119). Gruwell points to scholarship that casts Wikipedia as a way of showing how texts arise through a “socially constructed, ever-unfolding process” that does not stem from “a single, unified identity” (119). Scholars also value Wikipedia’s public nature and its message that knowledge is not limited to “credentialed experts” and is, in James Purdy’s view, “framed as up for debate” (qtd. in Gruwell 119). But Gruwell argues that Wikipedia, like any technology or text, emerges from its culture and encodes “biases and assumptions” that scholars should be alert to (119).

Gruwell examines Wikipedia as a discourse community; she notes that the scholarship on such communities demonstrates how, within the community, some modes of communication are sanctioned while others are discouraged or even denied. Gruwell argues, however, that members of one discourse community are also members of other communities and that these varied simultaneous memberships shape individuals’ relationships across communities. Wikipedia, she writes, does not acknowledge the diversity or multiplicity of the people who contribute; for example, the site does not ask editors to register and minimizes the information users have to supply. As a result, Gruwell states, “it is difficult to discern who these users are” (121). She contends that a user’s “standpoint”—his or her “allegiances . . . , politics . . . , [and] social positioning”—affect the knowledge that the user incorporates into the Wikipedia interface (121).

This dissociation from users’ lived experiences is further enforced, she writes, by the site’s style preferences. She demonstrates these preferences with a screen shot of the entry for “Feminist movement,” which is deemed unacceptable because it is “written like a personal reflection or essay” rather than in the mandated “encyclopedic style” (Wikipedia entry for “Feminist movement,” qtd. in Gruwell 118). Gruwell critiques this style choice through the lens of feminist standpoint theory, arguing that Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” requirement, which, according to the site’s guidelines, asks writers “to describe debates rather than engage in them” (qtd. in Gruwell 121), excludes writing from an “embodied” positionality reflective of the kind of “lived experiences” that shape knowledge and that characterize a feminist approach to discourse (119).

Gruwell details her own experiences with Wikipedia. After regularly turning to Wikipedia for “quick run-down[s]” when needed, she fulfilled a graduate seminar assignment by enlisting as an editor (122). Discouraged by the difficulty of the “idiosyncratic” mark-up language then in use and by seeing her edits revised, Gruwell returned to using Wikipedia solely as a resource. However, the discovery that only 13% of editors were women encouraged her to see her experiences as grounds for investigation (122).

After promised help from Wikipedia recruiting women study participants failed to materialize, Gruwell located a “Wikimedia Australia gender gap listserv” (123) populated by women who contributed regularly to Wikipedia. Participants took a short survey on their experiences and then responded to a request for a longer interview over Skype or phone (123, 128-29).

Gruwell focuses on three interviews that provide useful insights into women’s relationships with the Wikipedia community (123). The three women were “relatively privileged . . . , well-educated, [and] economically advantaged” (123). Gruwell posits that these women’s positions may have enabled them to engage successfully with Wikipedia because they had both the time and the skills to do so (123). The women cited their emotional commitment to Wikipedia’s goals or to the community, with one explicitly expressing a political purpose, calling attention to issues she considered important. Gruwell notes that all three wrote “about topics that mattered to them, as individuals and professionals” (124) and with which they had a personal connection.

Gruwell’s interviews suggest three reasons why women fail to thrive at Wikipedia. First, her participants note that even professional women are still burdened by traditonal women’s duties and thus cannot prioritize becoming expert users (124-25). Second, though Gruwell notes that Wikipedia is making its coding simpler (123n4), historically learning to edit has presented a considerable learning curve. Her participants suggest that because IT has generally been a male-dominated domain, people comfortable using the interface may well more often be male. Finally, Gruwell emphasizes the degree to which the discourse expectations at Wikipedia exclude the kinds of knowledge many woman may bring to the project (124-25).

Gruwell explores these issues by examining how her three interview subjects have succeeded as Wikipedia editors. Beyond bringing some IT expertise, as one participant does, the women exhibit “a sophisticated sense” of how Wikipedia operates that enables them to meet the rigid community requirements (125). They recognize the mandate to direct their work to “the widest possible audience” (“Lekha,” qtd. in Gruwell 125); they copy and develop templates to structure their work in formats that will be accepted (126). Gruwell especially addresses the epistemological standards the women must meet. Of particular note is the need for “sourcing” that will be considered “reliable” (126). The women’s experiences in academia, Gruwell posits, makes meeting this standard easier for these women than it would be for others. However, she provides examples of how this standard excludes individual and local knowledge, as does the site’s sense of what constitutes the “notability” necessary for inclusion on Wikipedia (126). In Gruwell’s view, such practices create a “homogenous” body of information that claims authority as decisive when it fact it excludes rather than enables debate (127). Moreover, citing Andrea A. Lunsford and Lisa Ede, Gruwell identifies Wikipedia as an example of “hierarchical collaboration,” in which differences must be smoothed out rather than acknowledged (127).

Gruwell cites Wikipedia’s recent efforts to address the gender issue, but argues that these efforts do not challenge the limiting epistemology the site endorses (127). She introduces #tooFEW, a feminist group hoping to change the Wikipedia culture rather than simply “align with” it, and notes composition journals that do similar work (127-28). She reminds composition scholars that academic fields also value the “‘objective,’ detached writing” privileged by Wikipedia, and urges feminist scholars to take the “risks” involved in resisting such standards (128). Teachers should bring Wikipedia into classrooms for examination of the assumptions underlying its concept of knowledge and driving its discourse conventions (128). Finally, teaching Wikipedia critically can identify other excluded positionalities in its depiction of reality (128).


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Sealey-Morris, Gabriel. Rhetoric of Comics. CS, Spring 2015. Posted 06/04/15.

Sealey-Morris, Gabriel. “The Rhetoric of the Paneled Page: Comics and Composition Pedagogy.” Composition Studies 43.1 (2015): 31-50. Web. 28 May 2015.

Gabriel Sealey-Morris argues that comics can enrich college students’ rhetorical education, supplying opportunities for students to meet the outcomes called for by the WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition and the NCTE Position Statement on Multimodal Literacies. In Sealey-Morris’s view, although the recognition of comics as a complex form of literary activity has been well noted in critical circles, rhetoric and composition has been slow to take up the benefits offered by using comics as a pedagogical tool in the writing classroom (32).

Sealey-Morris examines competing definitions and critical takes on comics by specialists and artists, exploring such issues as the relative priority of words and images (34). He presents comics as a vehicle for enhancing students’ rhetorical and critical abilities by arguing that they meet each of four WPA outcomes—rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and writing; knowledge of conventions; and processes—as well as the call for more intensive attention to digital literacy and production in both documents.

Sealey-Morris presents comics as an enhancement to rhetorical knowledge by virtue of the medium’s demands for a “radically different kind of literacy” (33) in which the juxtaposition of words and images expands the interpretive possibilities as well as their complexity. He notes also the role that the medium often elicits from authors (36). He argues from sections of the NCTE position paper and from work by Scott McCloud that the separation of word from image required by conventional prose and represented as “maturation” elides the degree to which children naturally combine words and images to communicate. Sealey-Morris sees comics as operating on a rhetorical level that foregrounds more choices and possibilities than either words or images alone can permit snd re-opens the potential for a “rhetorical richness” that may be lost as children are weaned away from seeing images as equal components of expression (35). Sealey-Morris explores comics authors’ relationships to their own work as they create their “authorial ethos” in the process of interacting with varied audiences in different ways, often by depicting themselves as characters in their comics (36). Such recognition of the effects of a wider range of rhetorical choices than prose can allow as well as of the options for designing oneself as a visible component of a communicative act, Sealey-Morris argues, lend increased range and depth to the rhetorical knowledge college writing students are asked to acquire.

The interpretive complexities Sealey-Morris discusses also encourage critical thinking and reading, as well as critical attention to writing as students begin to produce their own comics. Critics present a range of views of how the relation between panels and their contents affects readers’ construction of narratives, their impressions of time, and their choices of reading strategies (37). Sealey-Morris argues that comics cannot be read “superficial[ly]” (38); they demand constant work as readers move between language and images within panels, additionally assessing the overall relationships established by the arrangement of different components on the page (37). Readers, moreover, must choose among a range of possible orders for encountering the text (37). For Sealey-Morris,

[i]mmersion in a comics page is more difficult than in prose, which is temporal and necessarily sequential, or in the presence of image only, which is static and visible within a self-created context. (38)

Such challenges to reading result in a “critical distance” in which conventional responses to reality become unavailable; at the same time, exposure to images of body language and gesture simulate “the work of interpreting real life” (38). For Sealey-Morris, these contributions to the activity of reading encourage students to develop a much more varied rhetorical and critical repertoire.

Comics, Sealey-Morris contends, can also help students develop knowledge of conventions. He presents examples from Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, by writers Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander and artists Kevin and Zander Cannon to illustrate how a comics presentation can both lay out an academically sophisticated argument and teach an academic convention like citation (39-40). He further draws on examples of work by comics artists to argue that the intensive revision and recursive development of a comics page instills in students both an understanding of the importance of writing processes and an appreciation for the ways collaboration can increase rhetorical choices and effectiveness (41). Collaboration, in this view, is becoming more and more central as multimodal literacy assumes heightened importance in literacy education (42).

To argue for the effectiveness of comics as a means of enhancing students’ digital literacy, Sealey-Morris draws on Richard Lanham’s contention in The Economics of Attention that print “is marked by ‘fixity’ and ‘invisibility,’ as it delivers meaning without calling attention to itself as a medium” (45). In contrast, the image/word juxtaposition and tension unavoidable in comics demands awareness of the role of the medium in the communication process, thus alerting students to the complex pressures inherent in rapidly changing communicative technologies (45-46).

Sealey-Morris points out that the technical difficulties students might face in actually generating comics within classroom environments have been addressed by the recent distribution of a number of relatively simple, cheap, or even often free apps that can be used to create the necessary images (46). Such production is important for the college writing classroom, he argues, not just for its contribution to critical thinking and rhetorical knowledge, but also for the degree to which it can support student ownership of their work. Quoting Jared Gardner, Sealey-Morris sees words as easily available for passive consumption and thoughtless deployment in “an environment in which, for writers, the ‘choice of tools (pen, typewriter, laptop) have become irrelevant'” (48). Sealey-Morris again contrasts the effects of producing comics, an activity in which the multitude of complex elements and choices make rhetorical action a much more demanding and absorbing effort than, in his view, print generation has become, thus encouraging increased thoughtfulness and awareness of the effects of each choice (49).


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Hirsu, Lavinia. Tag Writing as Cultural Script. C&C, Spring 2015. Posted 05/19/15.

Hirsu, Lavinia. “Tag Writing, Search Engines, and Cultural Scripts.” Computers and Composition 35 (2015): 30-40. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Lavinia Hirsu writes about the need to examine the process of tagging as a social and cultural process capable of generating community and identity as search-engine users categorize objects, people, and concepts. Composition studies, she argues, has generally relegated attention to tags and search engines to research, in her view taking too narrow an approach to this everyday activity, in contrast to fields like media and information studies and economics (30-31).

To illustrate her claim that tagging can be a source of social action and agency for users, she presents the case of Romania, which, after joining the EU in 2007, found itself the object of ridicule and prejudice. This prejudice was largely circulated through tags that completed phrases like “Romanians are. . . ,” so that an online searcher looking for information about Romania would find negative categorizations at the top of both the suggested search-term list and the search results. Through the advocacy of an advertising agency and a Romanian business, citizens were enlisted to join a campaign called “Romanians are Smart” by replacing the negative characterizations with positive ones. Over time the online references to Romania shifted to create images of Romanians as not just “smart,” but also “beautiful,” “educated,” and “hard-working” (33-34). International media recognized this project as successful, with Business Magazine proclaiming Romania “[t]he first country that changes its image on the Internet” (qtd. in Hirsu 34).

Hirsu discusses both the negative and positive Romanian characterizations as “folksonomies,” a term that contrasts with “taxonomies.” In the latter, the characteristics of the entity being described are “fixed” (32); in a folksonomy, the characteristics are fluid, responsive to user choices that result in “popularity and circulation,” creating a feedback loop as users replicate, tweak, and re-circulate tags (32). Hirsu argues that tags, which create folksonomies, can be applied to many digital objects other than photographs or blog entries. In the Romanian example, tagging functioned somewhat like “Googlebombing,” as one folksonomy replaced another (39).

For Hirsu, the importance of tagging as a cultural and social activity lies in the insights it can provide into the effects of electronic discourse as that discourse becomes a common shared rhetorical landscape. The Romanian project succeeded, she argues, in part because it was so universally accessible; entry into the public sphere did not require complicated technical knowledge or even much effort (36). The existence of folksonomies foregrounds how human action can impact a process like search-engine results that seems to be random or unbiased; Hirsu cites criticism that reveals that search results can be the product of and evidence for “sustained collective user behavior” (32). The use of tags to shift perceptions and visibility of entities and topics enables user agency as people actively build online personas (38). Despite concerns that a single user’s choices are inconsequential, Hirsu provides examples of how such agency can act locally and even extend beyond national borders (39). She argues that user interventions in the ways search engines organize information creates a de facto “alternative public rhetorical education” (36; emphasis original) as people discover how to manipulate processes that may seem “merely functional” but that in fact have the power to reshape culture (32). The study of tagging also illustrates how the power of a discourse may be as much a product of the way it is delivered as of the actual content, as higher-ranked search results tend to be seen as more authoritative (37-38).

For Hirsu, the flexibility that makes tagging a vehicle for cultural discourse also gives it a “fragility” that can result in productive folksonomies losing ground to problematic ones unless users actively sustain their efforts at “training” search engines to avoid simplistic categorization (36; emphasis original). The agency users experience is not necessarily ethical (37); only consistent work to link topics to a range of descriptors can prevent them from coalescing into unreflective stereotypes. Similarly, some tags risk valorizing one referent by denigrating another, as when “Roma” gypsies are contrasted with “Romanians” in order to elevate the profile of the Romanians (36). Other dangers include the ability of search engines to learn and foreground individual search patterns, so that users risk being exposed only to the patterns they have inadvertently created (38).

Hirsu argues that avoiding these limitations is an important reason for students in composition classrooms to investigate the role of such apparently meaningless activities as tagging (38). By examining various tagging trends to see how they shape a conversation, students can become not just consumers of online discourse but can find ways to become what Alexander Halavais designates “an informed user” who is “a producer of media, a willing interlocutor in the distributed conversation of the web” (qtd. in Hirsu 38). In other words, changes in technology’s role in democratic public life mean that agency in the public community involves participating in activities like tagging; composition studies, in Hirsu’s view, should more proactively embrace the task of helping students think about how their engagement in this process “creates content and builds cultural discourses” for which they share responsibility (35).


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Gallagher, John R. Templates in Web 2.0. C&C, Spring 2015. Posted 04/14/15.

Gallagher, John R. “The Rhetorical Template.” Computers and Composition 35 (2015): 1-11. Web. 25 March 2015.

John R. Gallagher addresses the role of the “template” as a component of the rhetorical situation when writing for Web 2.0, a question with implications for the debate over the relationship between form and content. He bases his claim that Web templates can be used creatively, flexibly, and even subversively on his own experiences as well as the responses of students to an assignment designed to increase attention to the role of templates in guiding writers’ actions. In particular, he focuses on Facebook’s “profile” and “cover” photos to illustrate how users of these standard forms can reinterpret the possibilities they offer.

To situate the template in the form/content debate, Gallagher presents the concerns of Kirsten Arola that as a preordained form, templates allow writers to insert content without consideration of the role of form. The form becomes “invisible” (qtd. in Gallagher 1). To address this claim, Gallagher reviews the scholarship of the rhetorical situation, which has historically revolved around the question of whether the situation or the intentions of the rhetor call forth “rhetorical discourse” (2). Gallagher affirms subsequent scholarship on the rhetorical situation that maintains that rhetor and situation are not discrete entities available for analysis in isolation, but rather are components of a process in which situation and rhetor are constantly repositioned by their interactions with each other and with their contexts (3). In this view, no situation is ever self-contained; its final meaning is always deferred as it awaits “another word or idea with which to create a comparison” (3).

Application of genre theory allows Gallagher to foreground how Web 2.0 contexts develop through social interaction as users of templates share “standardize[d]” processes and options that are nonetheless open to interpretation and multiple iterations (4). Gallagher argues that users participate in the creation of the conventions that characterize Web 2.0 discourse, including the ways templates can be manipulated. Far from being a stable form that dictates particular responses, Gallagher contends, templates, like genres, “are stable only in their historical and temporal contexts” (4), always subject to updates and new uses in which the actions of writers make the form meaningful (8). While the template privileges certain decisions and choices, Gallagher writes that all forms of media require rhetors to work within constraining boundaries and to explore the possibilities within those boundaries for meeting rhetors’ goals (8).

The developers of templates are also actors within the situation of which the template is a part, updating and revising templates in response to user actions (4). Ultimately, although the template does provide “a baseline series of choices” (4), what the template invites depends on the ways writers find to use it: “A template is never complete without a writer” (8). Gallagher disagrees with Arola: the influence of a template only vanishes when writers fail to think of the template as “a rhetorical tool” (5).

Gallagher provides examples of his own use of the Facebook profile and cover photos as well as the status update template to show that the content inserted into these forms can take on varied and unexpected meanings depending on his individual decisions about selection and arrangement of the standard elements (5-7). He includes a classroom assignment, “Examining the Template on the Internet,” which asks students to take explicit notice of the role of the template as they use it: “to see design, layout, and arrangement as part of content” (9). Reflective writing on this assignment generates discussion on how changes to templates alter rhetorical opportunities, how different templates on different sites affect such opportunities, and how the privacy elements in template use affect decisions about audience (10). Gallagher argues that a fuller awareness of templates as an element in rhetorical situations will make visible the ongoing construction of meaning their flexibility and openness to iteration enable (10).