College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

Oleksiak, Timothy. Queer Praxis for Peer Review. CCC, Dec. 2020. Posted 02/17/2021.

Oleksiak, Timothy. “A Queer Praxis for Peer Review.” College Composition and Communication 72.2 (2020): 306-32. Print.

Timothy Oleksiak proposes an approach aligned with queer rhetorical theory to replace the “entrenched” (328) process of student peer review that he feels is not only unproductive in terms of what teachers hope from it but also inimical to helping students achieve what he considers the true role of writing.

Oleksiak argues that current peer review paradigms are inextricably invested in “the improvement imperative” (307); he presents composition scholarship to support his view that teachers almost universally imagine that the routine of “share,” “respond,” and “revise” will produce better writing (306). He notes critical scholarship addressing the ways that many writing professionals find peer review inadequate even on these terms, noting student tendencies to rush the task and teachers’ “undercut[ting]” of the process when they “augment” peer responses and take on the role of final “expert” on the quality of writing by assigning grades (311). 

Theorizing by Peter Elbow and Robert Brooke et al., Oleksiak contends, takes the idea of peer review “in a very good direction” in focusing on how readers feel as they encounter texts rather than on external criteria for “fixing” deficient work (309), but finds that even this work “slips improvement through the back door” (308) by continuing to maintain that such review, as Brooke et al. write, “significantly improves the writing” (qtd. in Oleksiak 309).

The improvement imperative, Oleksiak claims, enacts an ideology in that it presumes that “control and mastery over texts” is a valid goal and privileges “a coherent subject outside of the immediate context” (311). In addition, this focus precludes the practice of “worldmaking,” which Oleksiak considers “the primary concern of writing” (307).

Oleksiak’s concerns about extant peer review processes align with Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism,” which focuses on the tendency to retain allegiance to an “object” even when that object is inadequate to deliver the life improvements it promises (312). In Oleksiak’s view, peer review with its promise of improvement, if the process could be corrected effectively, is an example of such an object, one that actually impedes the very progress it supposedly addresses (313). Oleksiak advocates abandoning the optimism embedded in peer review for a process based on “[q]ueer rhetorical listening” that concerns itself with a new approach to “maintaining attachments.” This approach requires relinquishment of widely held conceptions of individual agency in creating a “good life of writing” (313).

Oleksiak draws on Krista Ratcliffe’s theory of “rhetorical listening” but moves beyond it to incorporate “the potentials of queerness” (314). Ratcliffe’s construct, Oleksiak writes, involves “four moves”:

Listeners “understand how texts function on their own terms”;

“Individuals hold themselves and others accountable for the consequences of their words”;

“Individuals seek out meaningful similarities and differences” with attention to context; and

“Individuals explore the cultural logics” that provide meaning for claims. (314)

Oleksiak argues that Ratcliffe’s formulation lacks the worldmaking potential of queer listening in peer review in that it limits the imaginations of interlocutors to  the “immediate context” (316); queer rhetorical listening foregrounds “what (im)possibilities are created through drafts,” inviting consideration of worlds beyond what individual responses might envision (316). Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening, further, assumes “a coherent subject [who] decides how to employ her agency,” while queer rhetorical listening proposes “a social, communal notion of agency” in which individuals cannot fully understand the circumstances in which they are acting nor predict how their decisions will play out (317). Agency, in this view, arises from the drafts as they are addressed.

For Oleksiak, peer review grounded in queer praxis becomes “slow peer review,” a process that abandons what he theorizes as the neoliberal emphasis on “efficient, market-based solutions” and on a mindset that “overvalues productivity” (317). He explores what he considers a queer sense of time in that in the LGBTQ community, the present is not welcoming and queer time holds onto “both imagined pasts and imagined futures,” searching for “worlds not yet built” (318). Adjunct to this sense of time is queer desire, manifested in Oleksiak’s argument as “cruising,” that is, refusing to “believe texts inherently” but rather “looking for a space for me and for the ways a text shapes my body in new and pleasurable ways” (318). Slow peer review, he maintains, allows students “a way to cruise drafts” (318).

Oleksiak provides specifics of the slow peer review process, including prompts. At each step students read drafts several times and formulate responses only after this slow process. Twelve questions guide the responses, focusing on a “thick description of the world that is being created in this piece of writing,” with emphasis on who would be able to thrive and even survive in that world (319-22). Two more sets of questions guide students in reacting to these responses, with a focus on how the reader’s description of the world created aligns with the world the writer hoped to present (325). In Oleksiak’s view, these activities clarify for students that their words have consequences far beyond the inhabitants of the worlds they posited and even far beyond the lives imagined by the immediate participants. Oleksiak writes, “This is queer” (323).

In slow peer review, the use writers make of the understandings they develop through each others’ drafts is the writer’s choice, even if the responses are not incorporated into further writing. More important than improvement, in Oleksiak’s view, is the generation of “a serious document of effects and affective responses to consider” that demands ethical decisions (326). Oleksiak focuses on the opportunity the process provides for students to share voices while understanding that “writing is never complete” and that the constraining obligation to produce a “perfect” text can be removed (327).

Oleksiak agrees that slow peer review requires adjustments to teachers’ use of time. Not only does the process demand more class time, it also asks teachers to prepare students for complex concepts like cultural logics. Merely handing out the prompts, Oleksiak maintains, will fail (327). While commitment to slow peer review might cut into time for other writing activities, Oleksiak values the process for its queer investment in “reconfigur[ing] normative temporalities” and “checking the forward progress of fast learning” (327). Oleksiak sees these possibilities emerging only in the process of sharing drafts and therefore chooses not to provide an example of slow peer review in action.

Rhetoric and composition, Oleksiak contends, would benefit from using the “backward glances” that have informed his exploration of peer review to examine other accepted practices and to take advantage of queer components such as queer rhetorical listening and the willingness to allow readers to “disengage” from worlds they encounter in texts if these worlds appear “unlivable” to them, albeit not as a sign of failure but rather as “a promise to return” (328). He advocates seeing the purpose of writing as “the ethical negotiation of textual worldmaking activities,” in his view a more productive use of time than the improvement of individual texts (329).


Leave a comment

Higgs, Jennifer. K-12 Teachers’ Use of Digital Discussion Tools. RTE, Aug. 2020. Posted 11/27/2020.

Higgs, Jennifer. “Digital Discourse in Classrooms: Language Arts Teachers’ Reported Perceptions and Implementation.” Research in the Teaching of English 55.1 (2020): 32-55. Print.

Jennifer Higgs investigated K-12 teachers’ attitudes toward and uses of digital apps designed to facilitate dialogic discourse in classrooms. Her study suggests a “tension” between teachers’ plans and hopes for such technology and their actual use of it in their courses (43).

The study, conducted in the 2014-15 academic year, examined how teachers implemented Subtext, an “e-reader” used by more than 5600 K-12 “literacy teachers” at the time of the study. The app provides a range of interactive tools as well as opportunities for teachers to organize classroom activities (37). The sample for a Qualtrics survey was taken from a list provided by the company of educators who used the app on a regular basis for at least four weeks (38). Of the 552 surveys submitted from all grade levels, 451 were assessed as “valid” (41). The survey data were augmented with a qualitative case study of the use made of Subtext by “Peter,” an 11-grade English teacher the author met in her previous research. Higgs writes that she chose Peter because he had taken the survey and his responses “mirrored broader trends” in the survey results. Moreover, he had used Subtext for a year and expressed enthusiasm for its value as a teaching tool (39).

Higgs’s queries address theories of literacy and learning that consider “talking to learn” an important contributor to student growth; she cites the work of Vygotsky and Bakhtin as underpinnings for this approach (34-35). In this view, student conversation with diverse classmates encourages the development of ideas and comprehension. “Dialogic” exchanges are theorized to decenter the source of authority by moving to student-centered discourse (35). “[B]road participation” by students is considered essential to the success of this approach (35), as is engagement with “a supportive community for idea exploration and exchange” (36).

Higgs reports that, despite widespread acceptance of the importance of dialogic exchange, teachers have not always been able to fully implement ideal discourse communities in classrooms, with the result that, according to studies, “teacher-dominated talk has remained prevalent across time” (36). For some, Higgs writes, the availability of interactive apps like Subtext seems to offer a way for teachers to overcome some of the challenges that limit their success in encouraging more active dialogue in their classes. She notes research showing such advantages as increased, “ more egalitarian” participation and “more time to form and respond to ideas” (36).

Higgs contends that some advocates for digital discourse tools “ascribe a great deal of agency” to the tools (34), but research also indicates that activities like wikis often underperform, possibly because they don’t accord with embedded classroom organization or teachers’ and students’ understanding of familiar processes (36). Research to address this misfit between teachers’ hopes for the new tools and their actual performance in classrooms, Higgs writes, tends to consist of small-sample studies and to neglect language arts (37). Her study, she argues, pairs a large-scale survey with a more focused examination of the survey’s findings in a single classroom.

Her survey addressed four “constructs”:

  • Teachers’ Reported Classroom Uses for Subtext
  • Teachers’ Reported Reasons for Using Subtext
  • Teachers’ Perceptions of Digital Discourse as a Learning Tool That Encourages Student Participation
  • Teachers’ Perceptions of Affordances and Constraints Associated with a Tool That Supports Digital Discourse

The last two constructs were structured to receive open-ended responses (40).

Analysis of the survey data indicated that teachers tended to see Subtext in terms of its value as a “teacher tool” for managing assignments and activities, a “student tool” for students to use to engage with their reading and the classroom community, and a “digital tool,” that is, a tool with effects resulting specifically from “its digital nature.” For example, a respondent commented on the value of “embedded questions and links” (42).

Higgs’s data suggests that despite believing that Subtext should expand student engagement, teachers most commonly use the app “to assign readings of collective class texts” and to guide students through texts with comments and questions: that is, teachers mostly used Subtext as a “teacher tool” rather than a tool for “student-posed questions” (42). A majority of teachers surveyed responded that they thought the app resulted in more student participation and interaction and gave “shy kids . . . a platform to express ideas” (qtd. in Higgs 45). At the same time, a majority of respondents valued Subtext for its “convenience” and its contribution to “teachers’ productivity” as well as for its usefulness in helping students negotiate the assigned texts through teacher-posed questions and annotations (45). Higgs writes that the teachers “perceiv[ed]” that the digital nature of the app “improved or even transformed learning,” but in their actual uses of its affordances retained a teacher-directed approach (46).

To study Peter’s class, Higgs conducted 300 minutes of observation over five sessions, a 40-minute semi-structured interview, and various informal conversations. She also took extensive field notes and collected 33 threads illustrating class interaction as students read two novels using Subtext (40-41). Peter expressed belief that Subtext was a powerful tool for improving student interaction beyond what was usual in face-to-face classroom discussion (47). The observations and threads led Higgs to conclude that Peter’s use of Subtext accorded with that of the majority of survey respondents in that he primarily used the app to help students improve their ability to read the novels through annotations, modeling, and teacher-posed questions (47). Peter started all threads and student reactions were limited to responses to his original prompt (48). Higgs notes Peter’s “good intentions” but characterizes his results as “more closely aligned with recitation models than dialogic models” (49).

Higgs observes that a truly dialogic discourse community remains elusive even with new digital tools (50). Pointing out that teachers invest considerable time and effort into finding and using the new tools, Higgs rejects the idea that teacher resistance to new technologies is responsible for this result (50). She proposes more research to better understand teachers’ approaches to tools like Subtext and professional development that goes beyond “access to devices” and “decontextualized tutorials that champion frequent use over purposeful use” to encourage more effective uses of the affordances the tools offer (50). She contends that dialogic discourse will not “just happen” but presents challenges regardless of the available tools (51).


Leave a comment

Gold et al. A Survey of Students’ Online Practices. CCC, Sept. 2020. Posted 10/19/2020.

Gold, David, Jathan Day, and Adrienne E. Raw. “Who’s Afraid of Facebook? A Survey of Students’ Online Writing Practices.” College Composition and Communication 72.1 (2020): 4-30. Print.

David Gold, Jathan Day, and Adrienne E. Raw contend that qualitative research on students’ online writing practices could fruitfully be supplemented with quantitative studies of these practices. They argue that such research is needed to fill gaps in teachers’ knowledge of where students write online, for whom and for what purpose, and what rhetorical challenges they face in these spaces (7).

In fall 2018, the authors conducted a twenty-eight item survey at a large public Midwestern university (7). They sent the survey to a random sample of students, then followed up by enlisting the help of writing instructors in both first-year and upper-level courses. Respondents numbered 803, with 58.5% female, 18.3% first-generation college students, 66.2% (of 687 responses) white, 16.9% Asian American, 4.4% Black, 3.6% Latinx, 0.6% Native American or Pacific Islander, 8.3% two or more categories. Like the university’s general population, 73.1% report family income higher than the U.S. median for 2017 (7).

The authors maintain that their survey provides more fine-grained information than is usual in national surveys, which they state do not investigate the “myriad writing activities for multiple purposes” in which students may take part (4). They also write that their survey extends language arts research that tends to focus on a few of the more well-known sites; their survey asks about eleven different venues: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, discussion forums, news/magazine sites, Wikipedia, and user review sites (8).

The information they gather, in their view, is important to writing teachers because it offers insight into potential misconceptions that may guide assignment decisions. Beyond lack of knowledge as to where students actually participate, assignments may incorrectly assume student familiarity with certain sites (8), or teachers may assume students have more expertise than they actually have (12). The authors note that students are often asked to write on blogs, but very few of their respondents report having an account on a blog (9). Assignments, the authors state, make little use of more widely used sites like Snapchat, perhaps assuming they are “mere photo-sharing tool[s],” raising the possibility that composition should address the rhetorical aspects of such activities (9).

The authors also contend that more specific knowledge of how and why students do or do not write online can further what they see as a goal of composition as a field: furthering participation in civil or public rhetoric, including engagement on controversial topics (13, 15). Their results show that while instructors encourage contributions to blogs, they make little use of Snapchat and Instagram, which at the date of the research were “extremely popular” (9). Awareness of such disparities, in the authors’ view, can aid teachers making assignment decisions.

Gold et al. provide tables showing the data from their analyses. Examining “Spaces for Writing (and Not Writing) (8), the authors find that although most of their respondents had accounts at multiple sites, they wrote less on these sites than might be expected (8): “[D]igital ‘participatory’ culture may not be as participatory as we imagine” (11). Students were much more likely to read than to write, with “responding” as a “middle ground” (11). Snapchat elicited the most writing, with sites like blogs and discussion forums the least. Gold et al. suggest increased attention to both photo-sharing and the process of responding to understand the rhetorical environment offered by these activities (11-12).

Results for “Purposes and Audiences for Writing” (12) indicate that students most commonly use online communication to “maintain relationships with family and friends.” A second fairly common purpose was “developing personal or professional identity” (14). Most students surveyed “never” share creative work or “information or expertise,” and never enter into debates on controversial subjects (14).

Analyzing audiences, the authors propose four categories: family and friends; “members of an affinity space” like one designed to share recreational, political, or cultural activities; “members of a professional community,” which might include networking; and “fellow citizens or the general public” (13-14). The authors found that majorities of the students in their sample “never” wrote for any of the last three audiences (15).

The authors found that the more platforms students frequented, the more likely they were to write, suggesting that supporting the use of a wider range of sites might lead to greater proficiency across genres and audiences (16). Students exhibited a definite sense of what different sites were suited for, agreeing that blogs and discussion forums were appropriate for debate on controversies, but also almost never contributing to such sites (17).

Gold et al. write that while there has been much discourse about how students are presumed to write online, there has been less attention to the reasons they do not write (19). Noting the problems often associated with posting on public sites like Facebook and Twitter, such as bullying and shaming (19), Gold et al. focus on five reasons for resistance to writing that have emerged in research, the one most commonly indicated being concern over how “intended readers” might react (20).

Sizable majorities also resisted posting because of fear their contributions might reach unintended audiences; fear that posts would be online “forever”; worry that they lacked the authority to contribute; and “lack of skill” in a given venue (21). The student’s degree of “platform expertise” did not affect these responses.

Pointing out that all writers, including teaching professionals, make choices as to whether to edit or simply delete a drafted post, the authors posit that for students, the preferred decision to delete may represent “lost opportunities to engage with an interlocutor or audience” (21). Suggesting that these “affective components” militating against increased engagement may be “persistent features” of online writing in general, the authors urge teachers to consider these disincentives in designing online assignments (21).

The authors argue for the value of quantitative research both for the detailed information it can provide and for its potential to generate qualitative inquiry (22). They acknowledge limitations of any instrument, including the problem of capturing change, noting that as they wrote, Tiktok was emerging to compete with other popular sites (22). They advocate more detailed quantitative research with larger and more varied samples to explore such findings from their study as a lack of correlation between demographic variables and responses to their questions (23). They cite ongoing work on what constitutes “publics” as beneficial to students, who, they maintain, “have much to gain from writing in a wider variety of spaces for a richer range of purposes and audiences” (24).


Leave a comment

Cope, Emily Murphy. Evangelical Identities and First-Year Writing. RTE May 2020. Posted 08/17/2020.

Cope, Emily Murphy. “Compartmentalizing Faith: How Three First-Semester Undergraduates Manage Evangelical Identities in Academic Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 54.4 (2020): 367-91. Print.

Emily Murphy Cope studied how students identifying as evangelicals addressed the requirements of their first-year academic writing courses at “a large, public university located on an urban campus in the southeastern United States” (372). From the original ten students, she chose three to discuss for this article, in order to investigate the phenomenon of “compartmentalization” as a strategy for handling faith in an academic setting (368).

Cope discusses efforts to define “evangelicals,” noting that while this subset, estimated at 25% of the U.S. population, is “not a monolith,” research suggests that members share beliefs in “personal conversion and transformation, the Bible’s authority over Christian life, and the importance of enacting faith in ‘the world’” (368). Cope writes that scholars name such enactment “activism”; she differentiates between “service-oriented activism” addressing social needs and “evangelism-oriented activism” focused on conversion efforts (368).

Research on identity suggests that evangelicals, like other members of the current undergraduate population, construct identities that are “fluid” and “hybrid” and are often adjusted according to context (369). Cope’s larger study spoke to this finding in that all ten original students reported in interviews that their faith was important and “relevant” to their coursework, but in her analysis of their papers, she found that “evangelical identities were mostly invisible on the page” (370). She finds a “gap” in research in that many studies address students’ efforts to express their religious beliefs in their academic writing, but fewer examine situations like that of the three students she assesses, who find strategies for separating their religious and academic selves (370).

Cope sees these strategies as important for writing pedagogy because, in her view, writing instructors often aim to create a “cosmopolitan” discourse experience, in particular, one of “ethical cosmopolitanism”; drawing on S. S. Choo, she defines this stance as embracing “other-centered orientations and dialogic practices” (369). She cites M. M. Juzwik and C. McKenzie’s concern that evangelicals may not espouse these inclusive values (369). On the other hand, J. M. Ringer argues that some “enact a set of values that align with the civic goals of rhetorical education,” including an openness to “communication across differences” (qtd. in Cope 369). Scholars of identity formation, Cope posits, can learn much from such students’ efforts to “bridge multiple identities, interests, and languages” (369).

Her analysis of the interviews with the original ten students revealed three strategies: obscuring faith, which “cloak[s]” religious elements; compartmentalizing faith, in which students deliberately choose options that they see as unrelated to their faith; and integrating values, in which students look for ways to mesh their religious beliefs and those of other contexts (370-71).

She combines these data with strategies discussed in “social identity complexity theory” (SICT), advanced by S. Roccas and M. Brewer. This theory proposes that people align with many groups but that the identities practiced within these contexts may conflict with each other. The theory presents ways in which people may respond to this dissonance. The strategy of “Intersection” results in alignment only with others who “share all salient identities,” while “dominance” leads to subsuming multiple identities under one overarching choice. Choosing “compartmentalization” allows people to sustain separate identities that they “do not activate . . . simultaneously.” Finally, “Merger” involves “preserv[ing] both differentiation and integration in an inclusive social identity” (Roccas and Brewer, qtd. in Cope 371).

Cope discusses the role of positionality in her study. An early attempt to recruit evangelical students failed, but when she referred to herself as a “Christian researcher,” she found students willing to participate. One of the ten identified as “a Middle eastern kid”; the others, though white, did not all claim this identity. Cope lists a number of identities salient to the students, including “Southern” and “fans of athletic teams” (373). Cope asked students to submit all papers written up to that point; she received 195 writing samples. She coded both her hour-long interviews and the documents using a number of methods (374).

Interview questions asked what faith and Christianity meant to each student, then explored the experience of being a college writing student. For the documents, Cope asked for “the story of writing this paper,” then closed by asking whether, in the student’s view, “your faith affects your writing for college” (373-74). Charts and appendices report data on these analyses.

For the article itself, Cope focused on three students whose strategy of choice was compartmentalization. One of these, “Joe,” was the only student of the original ten who, when asked if his faith impacted his college writing, responded “Not a whole lot. No.” (qtd. in Cope 378). Interviews indicated that Joe’s on-campus identity was largely that of a university student and his writing reflected his willingness to adopt what he considered the most effective moves to earn a good grade (381). Cope notes that when he was having a hard time coming up with a suitable topic, he considered incorporating the experience of a mission trip but rejected it as “personal” and inappropriate for the assignment. However, Cope writes, Joe was willing to incorporate personal reactions when they did not deal with religion. She disputes that the suggestion that his choices marked him as less religious than other students, writing rather that his evangelical identity “was not ‘activated’” in college settings (381).

In contrast, Cope writes that the other two students, “Leesa” and “Will,” wanted “to enact faith via academic writing, but hadn’t yet figured out how” (381). Both wanted to engage in evangelical activism and saw communicating outside of their religious group important, but neither reported acting on this intention (384). According to the interviews, these students struggled to find topics where discussing their faith would be appropriate given their conviction that academic writing did not involve “personal” matters like religion (383). Leesa was able to bring up her faith in a paper devoted to researching her major, religious studies (383). Will mentioned being concerned about endorsing evolution in a lab report; Cope notes he indicated this discomfort by attributing claims to scientists rather than to himself (384). But on the whole, these students chose topics where faith was not an issue for them (386).

Cope argues that perceptions that academic writing cannot be personal coupled with “secularization,” which “differentiates and privatizes religion” (388; emphasis original), are detrimental to writing teachers’ efforts to help students communicate across difference. Students who choose compartmentalization miss opportunities to practice “hybridized identities that can engage in cosmopolitan dialogue and civic discourse” (388). Cope suggests that teachers who resist the public/private binary and what K. Hyland calls “the myth of impersonality” can work to help religious students “integrat[e] values” rather than compartmentalizing them (387).


Leave a comment

Wible, Scott. Design Thinking for Creative Problem Solving. CCC, Feb. 2020. Posted 04/19/2020.

Wible, Scott. “Using Design Thinking to Teach Creative Problem Solving in Writing Courses.” College Composition and Communication 71.3 (2020): 399-425. Print.

Scott Wible describes an upper-level course in a professional-writing minor in which “design thinking” is central to the course design and outcomes. In Wible’s view, the processes inherent in design thinking lead students to more creative responses to problem-solving assignments.

Wible notes that the 2011 Framework for Success in Post-Secondary Writing, by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teacher of English, and the National Writing Project, includes “creativity” as one of the “habits of mind” for successful student writing, defining it as “the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas” (399-400). Wible cites scholarship advocating creativity as an important writing outcome and advancing strategies for encouraging it (400). Adding reviews of composition scholars and others who promote design thinking, Wible presents design-thinking as “a human-centered process” that derives its effects from intensive interactions with stakeholders as well as an emphasis on learning as a way of expanding the invention phase of composing (400-01).

In the “large suburban public university in the Northeast” (403) where Wible directs the Professional Writing Program (425), students complete a “series of linked assignments” focused on identifying and proposing a solution to a problem (403). Wible became concerned that traditional assignments did not inspire students to conduct serious inquiry or to think creatively, but rather allowed them to seize on preconceived notions of the ideal solution and then, as noted by Carolyn D. Rude, “approach their remaining work as an exercise in defending that thesis” (404).

In contrast, Wible argues, design thinking uses a set of writing exercises or genres to preclude early closure and engender the kind of thinking needed to address what Richard Marback calls “wicked problems”: those that are “highly contextualized, value-laden, and solvable in more than one way” (404-05).

In Wible’s representation, design thinking encompasses five modes: Empathy Mode, Define Mode, Ideate Mode, Prototyping Mode, and Test Mode (405). These modes, embodied in written genres, provide students with templates for exploring the complexities of a problem and opening pathways to innovation, enabling them, as encouraged by Linda Flower and John Hayes, to “create ideas, not simply find them” (402).

Wible’s class was commissioned by the Office of Faculty Affairs to develop a video for new faculty at the university. Envisioned as a basic introduction to university life, the project as enriched by design thinking, in Wible’s view, recognized and addressed the needs of this group with deeper understanding and effectiveness (405).

An overriding principle behind the five modes and the genres through which they are implemented, he reports, is the need, in the words of “entrepreneur educator” Steven Blank, for students to “get out of the building,” (qtd. in Wible 407), recognizing that effective problem solving does not result from “huddling in a conference room” but rather from “empathy research” that involves firsthand engagement with stakeholders. This kind of research assumes that the inquirer is ignorant and in need of exploring the problem in unfamiliar contexts beyond traditional research (407). The genres facilitate this kind of inquiry.

In Empathy Mode, Wible reports that students present the new faculty stakeholders with a set of “User Empathy Cards” containing “activities and experiences likely common” to the new faculty; respondents sort the cards into priorities, an exercise that elicits conversations leading in unexpected directions (408). Students compose follow-up “empathy questions,” again beyond the expected, to elicit “detail-rich, value-laden stories” that encompass multiple facets of respondents’ situations (409).

The Definition Mode, Wible explains, results in “User Empathy Maps,” which students create through collaborative sharing of their notes, with salient points listed quickly and briefly on sticky notes. Emerging trends in these lists lead to the map, which includes the categories “Say,” “Think,” “Do,” and “Feel.” He gives the example of “academic loneliness” expressed by new STEM faculty trying to develop research agendas (411).

The synthesis afforded by the map leads to the POV Statement, a template in which a specific “user” is said to “need” a certain outcome based on conclusions from the mapping process. Wible contrasts these statements with project statements from a more typical course, in which a solution would often be embedded in the definition of the problem (412). The goal, he writes, is to capture “the emotional depth and breadth of a person’s experiences rather than only their material needs” (413).

Instead of proposing “import[ed]” solutions in the Ideation Mode, students use their POV Statements to compose “How Might We” statements that define the needs, then move on to an intensive collaborative brainstorming session. Wible emphasizes what he considers effective brainstorming, in his case, characterized in part by using the limited space afforded by sticky notes to capture ideas without getting bogged down in developing each one (415).

This process leads to “Idea Selection.” Wible urges moving beyond the commonly applied criterion of “feasibility,” which he argues results in “many imaginative yet undeveloped ideas get[ting] lost” (415). His students broke into teams charged with producing videos, with one considering feasibility, but two others looking for the idea “most likely to delight the user” and another considering the “potentially ‘biggest breakthrough’” (416).

In the Prototyping and Testing Modes, students presented possible “rough” solutions to their respondents and gathered feedback. This step, offered in multimodal genres, led to further revision. Genres included “[a]nnotated sketches,” and “role playing.” Because they had been asked to create a video, the students chose to create “eight-panel storyboards” (418). Wible continues to emphasize how the design process results in deeper knowledge and creative insights about context and needs:

The aim of creating and testing prototypes . . . is not to seek confirmation about a solution idea but rather to bring designers together with users to think with and through the prototype-as-tentative solution. . . . (418)

Students finally “pitch” their solutions, but Wible argues for moving them away from foregrounding their product to foregrounding their learning. They synthesize an “Innovation Story” and a “Learning Story” that detail how they created their solutions through the design modes (419-20).

Wible promotes the value of writing as a means to explore and focus the learning resulting from the use of design thinking and advocates integrating the methodologies students encounter in their varied majors with design processes (422). He reports critique that, unless specifically structured to include it, design thinking can overlook learning from past cultural moments, including “humanistic and social research that happen through reading” (423). He notes that design principles should not be seen as monolithic solutions for better writing outcomes but rather as part of a pedagogical strategy to inspire deeper, more creative engagement in problem-solving methods.


Leave a comment

Schey and Blackburn. Queering Normative Literacy. RTE, Aug. 2019. Posted 10/16/2019.

Schey, Ryan, and Mollie Blackburn. “Queer Ruptures of Normative Literacy Practices: Toward Visualizing, Hypothesizing, and Empathizing.” Research in the Teaching of English 54.1 (2019): 58-80. Print.

Ryan Schey and Mollie Blackburn discuss a study of their students in an “arts-focused charter high school in a Midwestern city” (64) as the students responded to Steve Brezenoff’s novel Brooklyn, Burning. The course was an “LGBTQ-themed” (58) literature course for juniors and seniors (64). The authors argue that the book created “ruptures” of normative literary practices, highlighting how readers’ responses to these ruptures could either shut down discussion or provide opportunities for learning (59).

Schey and Blackburn detail their research methodology, in which they combined ethnography and teacher research (63). Schey acted as participant-observer while Blackburn conducted “practitioner inquiry,” designing curriculum and assessment procedures (64). Materials for analysis included curriculum documents and student work, as well as field notes, audio and video recordings, and entrance and exit interviews (67). Thirteen of the fourteen enrollees in the course participated. Schey positions himself as a “white straight cis man” and Blackburn identifies as a “white queer cis woman” (66). Both have extensive experience working in support of LGBTQ groups.

The authors differentiate between LGBT scholarship and queer theory. The former, they write, “tend[s] to characterize sexuality and gender as stable, using positivist and modernist lenses” (60). In contrast, queer studies “destabilize fixed notions of gender and sexuality” (60). The authors review a number of studies that they feel can endorse not only “heteronormativity” but also “homonormativity,” when “binary framings” lead to “oversimplification” of students’ perceptions of sexuality and gender (61).

Literacy, for these writers, is itself ideological, influenced by context and extant power relations; they discuss how differently a student might read a text with friends as opposed to under the scrutiny of teachers (61). Classroom power relations make some forms of literacy response “normative and dominant”; queer theorists like those reviewed by Schey and Blackburn attempt to disrupt such processes and open the way for alternatives (62).

Reading experiences that confront students with ruptures in their normalized expectations, in the authors’ view, force them to attend to inherent possibilities that are otherwise obscured (63). Rather than addressing confrontations with such ruptures as “individual cognitive experiences,” the authors argue for a perspective contextualized within a social environment, an approach that they write requires more attention to race than is often provided (62). They turn to R. A. Ferguson as a scholar who, by “vehemently den[ying] the discreteness of any category such as gender, sexuality or race” offers a lens through which students can encounter generative ruptures (63).

Arguing for their ethnographic approach as a means to address “oppressive power relations,” the authors write that of their thirteen students, one was “white and Asian,” while the rest were white (64). A chart classifies the students, with a caveat that the students’ gender and sexual identities were “mulitiple, variable, and fluid,” with some changing after the study ended. Five were straight and cis gendered; a gay trans man was not named in the study, while another woman identified as queer and another as a lesbian (65). Three of the named students are listed as fluid in gender.

Brezenoff’s book, Ryan and Blackburn contend, functions as queer in that the “ruptures” it creates resist normative modes of literacy. They follow a brief plot summary with the statement that the novel “queers gender . . . but it also queers sexuality, families and homes, and time” (66). The gender of two of the main characters cannot be ascertained, nor can their sexuality. The novel contrasts the heteronormative contexts from which these characters emerge with a context in which characters play changing roles as partners and caregivers; moreover, an unusual chronology defies attempts to impose “order and stability” (66).

In the introduction to the article, Brezenoff suggests that his work reacts to attempts to assign fixed gender and sexuality through stereotypical, sexist characteristics; the authors write that his refusal to gender the two characters “destabilized not only sexist practices and ideologies but also those grounded in cisnormativity” (59).

The authors recount classroom discussions in which students grappled with “seeing” versus “visualizing,” “understanding” versus “hypothesizing,” and “connecting” versus “empathizing.” Some students expressed frustration that Brezenoff’s handling of characters made it hard to “gaze directly at the characters and find them legible according to [their] normative definitions of gender and sexuality” (69). The authors contrast other students who used the textual ambiguity to “visualize alongside” the characters, as if “looking over [their] shoulders,” thereby adopting new perspectives (69). Ambiguity, one student suggests, invites more readers to identify with the characters because they can imagine different characteristics.

Similarly, some students wanted to understand definitive answers to questions raised by the text, such as the cause of a fire (71). The authors contrast this need with the willingness of other students to “hypothesize” alternatives in which concrete characteristics were seen as contextual and fluid rather than fixed in specific bodies (72). According to the authors, the need to reduce ruptures to “fixed, stable, and singular knowledge” cast ruptures as “problems” rather than as “expanded epistemological practices” that invited “different ideas through different pathways” (76).

The authors recount a single mention of race as a rupture students struggled to address. One of the more resistant students said that he could not deal with ambiguity in race along with his uncertainties about gender and sexuality (72-73). Other students explored various ways of finding empathy across what the authors see as “white homonormative interpretations” (73), but the bell rang and ended the discussion. In contrast, the authors argue that the book’s depiction of a character’s addiction encouraged students to visualize the addiction as only one part of the character’s situation, thus allowing them to empathize in ways a narrower portrayal would have curtailed (74-75). Schey and Blackburn contend that the ability of several students to connect with characters with addictions but not people of color reflects national attitudes that equate addiction with criminality in Black people but with illness in need of care in whites (76).

In the authors’ view, presenting students with texts that create ruptures in their normal reading processes imposes risks, but that such ruptures can become “opportunities” rather “obstacles,” means, they contend, that “reading with ruptures is a risk worth taking” (77).


Leave a comment

King, Carolyne M. Reading as Embodied Practice. Comp Studies, Spring 2019. Posted 09/16/2019.

King, Carolyne M. “The Reader in the Texbook: Embodied Materiality and Reading in the Writing Classroom.” Composition Studies 47.1 (2019): 95-115. Web. 09 Sept. 2019.

Carolyne M. King argues for increased attention to the material aspects of student interaction with texts as they read. In her view, helping students understand how their situated physicality shapes the reading experience will enhance their ability to create meaning (97). She contends that writing pedagogy, particularly as it addresses reading in a pair of widely used readers, takes only “limited” account of the material process of reading (96).

Examining references to reading in a range of textbooks, King notes that they encourage activities such as underlining and highlighting, as well as marginal annotation, but states that attention to the “bodily involvement” and “sensory aspects” of these behaviors is nonexistent (98). She maintains that the textbooks fall short, as well, in considering how different media affect students’ ability to follow standard advice about effective reading; even when new media are addressed, attention to these experiences “largely focuses on changing technologies, . . . subtly giv[ing] agency to literacy tools as they act upon the body” (98) rather than on how students’ meaning-making activities change.

King draws on research by Christina Haas, Kristie Fleckenstein, and Sondra Perl to ground the claim that context and physical involvement, such as Perl’s “felt sense,” affect how readers respond to and make use of texts (97). Disability studies extend this understanding by illustrating, in King’s view, how classroom practice often advances what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls a “normate,” defined in King’s words as “the physical manifestation of the collective, un-stigmatized characteristics of a culture” (101). Normates provide expectations about what students should be able to do with a text without regard for the differences in the lived experience of individual readers, for example projecting a textbook as “an object that all students can carry, hold, and read” (101). King finds textbooks a rich area for study of these expectations because they purport to “describe what students should do when reading” (101).

King develops her argument by analyzing two textbooks that focus on reading but are widely assigned in writing classes (102), Ways of Reading by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky (Ways) and The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, by Mariolina Salvatore and Patricia Donahue (Elements). As sources of “authoritative instruction in how students should read,” these books, in King’s view, provide opportunities to investigate how they further a normate treatment of the material features of reading (99; emphasis original).

An illustration demonstrates that the two books provide closely spaced text with narrow margins and minimal white space (103). King argues that such formatting choices make assumptions about a reader’s ability to focus on small text and discourage interaction other than underlining and highlighting (103). The texts do not suggest anticipation of a reader who might need a magnifying glass, for example, and could not take in the page “holistically,” as this format invites (104). King suggests that variations in font, unlike the uniform features of these texts, might encourage student awareness of how such features affect their engagement with a text (104).

For King, the metaphors the books use to describe reading also pay inadequate attention to the embodied aspects of interaction with a text. Ways calls reading a “conversation,” but, King argues, does not envision how different bodies might understand or participate in conversation differently and thus respond differently to the metaphor (105). Elements offers a “transaction” as its metaphor, using the embodied language of “voice” but, King contends, focusing on thinking, stating that “reading involves . . . thinking the thoughts of another, inhabiting someone else’s mind” (qtd. in King 105). King writes that readers cannot inhabit the minds of others whose minds may have been shaped by different material experiences (106). Both texts, she argues, portray a sense that “the body can be transcended” and that thinking can exist outside of situated individual realities (106).

She critiques the books’ use of “a real—not hypothetical—student to exemplify their ideal reading process and outcome” (106). The student narrative in Ways “is intended to describe the embodied experience of the common student,” but in order to do so, the authors refrain from naming the student or providing any physical detail of the student’s appearance or of his activities as he enacts the ideal process (107). Similarly, Elements presents a successful student who is given a name but no other identifying details, such as age, race, or college status; according to King, the student’s actual successful strategies are not shared (108).

King draws on other critiques of these narratives to argue that the students in question are presented as having successfully modeled “teacher-sanctioned practices” (108) that they found accessible because “the material conditions of their prior existence most closely align with the classroom” (109). King argues that differently embodied students might interact with the two texts very differently than the “idealized” students in the narratives (107); their different responses, attributable to their different lived realities, risk falling outside the normate established by the texts.

Contending that for students, “the body houses their sociocultural identity,” King suggests principles and strategies for making students more aware of how they physically interact with texts. Encouraging “multiple ways of knowing” (110) and a range of modes and physical activities such as playing with visual elements and fonts (111), King writes, can raise students’ awareness of how different texts make them feel and act, and help them locate their own most effective strategies for reading (112).

When our textbooks privilege a version of reading that is not embodied and which does not emphasize the materiality of reading, our classrooms actively construct barriers for students whose embodied, material realities do not reflect an assumed norm. (112)

 


Leave a comment

Lewis Ellison & Solomon. African American Families and the Digital Divide. RTE, Feb. 2019. Posted 04/04/2019.

Lewis Ellison, Tisha, and Marva Solomon. “Counter-Storytelling vs. Deficit Thinking around African American Children and Families, Digital Literacies, Race, and the Digital Divide.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.3 (2019): 223-44. Web. 25 Mar. 2019.

Tisha Lewis Ellison and Marva Solomon address mainstream narratives that depict African Americans’ relationship with digital resources through a deficit model. Lewis Ellison and Solomon argue that “counter-storytelling” as a research methodology reveals a more accurate picture of the ways African Americans interact with digital environments.

The authors define digital literacy as “multiple and interactive practices mediated by technological tools . . . which include reading, writing, language, and exchanging information in online environments” (223). They see the dissemination of this literacy as imbricated in racial identity, yet believe its impact is overlooked in scholarship on race (223). In their view, stories drawn from African American experience with computers and other technologies must be “honor[ed]” rather than marginalized if a full understanding of the role of digital experiences in this community is to be fully understood (224).

Lewis Ellison and Solomon quote Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic to define “counter-storytelling” as a kind of narrative that “aims to cast doubt on the validity of accepted premises or myths, especially ones held by the majority” (qtd. in Lewis Ellison and Solomon 224). Such stories, in the authors’ view, are an important methodological resource in the attempt to move beyond misconceptions about cultures (238). Such stories, in this approach, are more revealing than data collection about actual practices in their portrayal of the ways people interact with and see themselves in relation to digital literacy (225).

The literature review lists studies that explore the use of digital resources among African Americans and that counter prevailing assumptions about the existence and nature of a digital divide. In addition, scholarship has explored how listening to counter-stories has helped educators improve learning opportunities for minority students in school settings (226-27). Still, the authors maintain, there is a “shortage” of studies of African American counter-stories about the interactions of race and digital access (227).

The authors write that the concept of a “digital divide” imposes “strict binaries” along social, educational, and economic lines (227). Citing Pippa Norris, they break the divide into the “global divide” among rich and poor geographical areas; the “social divide” that delineates “the information the rich and poor receive within various nations or social groups”; and the “democratic divide,” which addresses the degree to which “access plays a major role in an individual’s agency and power” (227-28). Lewis Ellison and Solomon argue that most discussions around the digital divide locate African American users among the poor with limited access and depict users as White, thus furthering a misleading narrative about “what Internet access looks like, who has it, [and] who does not” (228), with the result that digital resources are often not directed toward communities of color. In fact, the authors contend, research shows that African Americans are making substantial gains in Internet use (228).

The authors’ current research derives from two studies. Lewis Ellison used survey, interview, and observational approaches along with analysis of digital story-telling practices for a qualitative case study of the use of computers in the home by five African American families. Her discussion centers on “Chant,” a professor in an urban university in the south, and Chant’s nine-year-old son “Rem” (229). She asked,

In what ways did the digital literacy and story-making practices of an African American family dyad (mother/son) display evidence of agency in the context of a family-focused digital storytelling activity? (231)

Solomon conducted a “naturalistic inquiry” with eight African American first-graders at the school where she had taught for fourteen years in order to learn “what would happen if first graders had the opportunity to use digital tools in their own storytelling” (231). This study also collected surveys, artifacts, observations, and transcripts. Seven of the eight families studied had home computers. Solomon focuses on two girls, “Penny” and “Jordan” (232).

Lewis Ellison’s study of Chant resulted in conversations in which Chant provided counter-stories challenging the view that African Americans were emblematic of a digital divide. As a professor, Chant spent much professional time using digital resources, and she and her son did so at home as well (229, 237). Chant emphasized the importance of being included as “part of the conversation” for minority communities (233). She revealed the effects of the deficit model in that the less-affluent community where she chose to live was seen by Internet service providers as not in need of advanced online options; as a result, her community was forced to pay higher prices for home service (234).

Solomon’s study of Penny revealed another effect of inaccurate assumptions about African American use of digital resources. Penny did not have access to a computer at home, a fact that drove assumptions about her online competence. However, the authors note that she had access through her extended family, and in fact, Penny proved very adept at telling stories with computers (235).

Jordan’s teacher characterized her as “very creative,” and stated that students had many opportunities to use digital resources creatively (236). The authors state, however, that these opportunities were school-based prompts that prevented Jordan from exercising agency (236). Once permitted to write on her own for the study, Jordan produced images that “announce[d] her status as multiracial in a bivariate family and world,” revealing sophistication that had gone unremarked in comments from the teacher 237).

The authors urge educators to invite counter-stories from students and also from families in order to understand more fully how African Americans interact with digital resources and to dispel oppressive assumptions based on the expectation that they will be constrained by a digital divide (238). Using Adam J. Banks’s model of digital access (233), the authors found that their study subjects exercised all five kinds of access Banks listed: material, experiential, critical, functional, and transformative (237-38).

Lewis Ellison and Solomon conclude that

to date, there are no known opportunities to cultivate discussions and strategies for learning between teachers and parents (and particularly parents of color) concerning digital and nondigital practices. (239)

Awareness of counter-stories as a research methodology, the authors state, can serve as a corrective to deficit models that adversely affect classroom practice.

 


Leave a comment

Moe, Peter Wayne. The Importance of Ordinary Sentences. Comp Studies, Fall 2018. Posted 03/21/2019.

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 79-95. Web. 14 Mar. 2019.

Peter Wayne Moe investigates the rhetorical work of “ordinary sentences” like those in his “collection” from first-year writing students (81). He shares with Jennifor Sinor a definition of “ordinary writing as a text that is not literary, is not noticed, and one that should have been discarded but that instead somehow remains” (qtd. in Moe 92n4). Student writing, Moe contends, meets this definition (92).

Moe builds his argument around the concept of writing as an act of “inhabitation.” He notes that this concept is embedded in “elocution,” the Latin roots of which mean “out of” a “place” (80). Similarly, the Latin sources of “composition” are “to place” and “together” (81). He draws on a number of writers, including both scholars and fiction writers, to demonstrate that the possibility that a writer can “inhabit” his or her prose is widely accepted (79-81). In this view, “location” moves “beyond physical places to include the rhetorical situation, the ways language locates a writer in relation to other people, other ideas, other discourses” (81).

In this sense, Moe argues, ethos becomes a function of the nature of a writer’s location. He cites Kathleen Blake Yancey’s sense that who a writer is will be enabled and constrained by the people and circumstances around her, often in ways that are hard to recognize (80). Moreover, Moe evokes the participation of the reader, who also does the work of “locat[ing] the writer” based on interrelationships between a text and larger contexts that the writer may not control (82).

Moe cautions that his project of developing “a theory of the inhabited sentence” in this larger sense of “inhabitation” is not meant to provide models for imitation because the meaning of individual sentences emerges from the circumstances surrounding them, and therefore the work of any one sentence is “not reliably repeatable or transferrable from one piece of writing to another” (82). He also distinguishes his analysis from the moves of location via metatext highlighted by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say/I Say. In Moe’s approach, writers are seen to make communicative moves without “heavy-handed metatext” that can be “overbearing” or even “violent” (82). In contrast, Moe argues, sentences in his collection allow readers to construct connections in which they, along with the writers, inhabit meaning (82).

Finally, Moe argues for the value of studying ordinary sentences like those students produce, in contrast to the practice in many textbooks of “[p]lucking ideal sentences by masters,” a practice that Moe maintains delivers the message that ordinary writing, especially that by students, is not “real” writing (83). In addition, in Moe’s view, making extraordinary sentences the basis for writing instruction neglects the need for students and writers to see how their choices in “worker sentences” serve to establish their relationships with others and with issues (91). Students who struggle to note counterarguments or cite sources, he contends, are actually grappling with the problem of locating themselves in and alongside texts (91).

Moe’s collection addresses moves that he feels are both mundane, performed by all writers at some point, and yet important. As one example among eight, he contends that the choice of whether “I” or another writer discussed in the text is chosen as the subject of sentences can map a writer’s changing location with regard to that other writer (84). In another example, he argues that a parenthetical aside “allows the student to speak back to herself, to question what she’s already said” (87). In yet another case, he shows how removing the locative adverbial components leaves a sentence “decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (88).

For Moe, acknowledging the “rhetorical density of ordinary sentences,” especially through the lens of inhabitation, underscores the degree to which any sentence occupies space, “among other sentences, other clauses, other phrases” (91). This understanding, he argues, is “more important than being able to identify President Lincoln’s use of epistrophe in ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’” (92). Helping students see how their easily overlooked choices locate them among others, in this view, should be the primary academic task (91).


Leave a comment

Witte, Alison. CMSs as Genres. C&C, Sept. 2018. Posted 11/20/2018.

Witte, Alison. “‘Why Won’t Moodle. . . ?’: Using Genre Studies to Understand Students’ Approaches to Interacting with User Interfaces.” Computers and Composition 49 (2018): 48-60. Web. 9 Nov. 2018.

Alison Witte addresses the difficulties her first-year students faced when they encountered the Course Management System (CMS) in use at her institution. She surveyed students in first-year courses over six semesters to discover the factors that may have caused these problems (50). Witte found that examining the CMS interface as a genre provided insights into how students interacted with the program.

The author notes that the use of a CMS has “become a normalized part of many educational institutions’ landscapes” (48). The program’s power to shape interactions between students, instructors, and the institution, she writes, can generate “tensions” (48). She describes Moodle, the CMS in place for her university, comparing its “static” features with the more interactive and responsive features of social media sites; she notes in particular the “teacher-driven design” that permits the instructor to determine what sections to create and to provide the content (49). Witte quotes a faculty mentor who supports the university’s commitment to Moodle because the students are familiar with it from high school and “like it,” even though, according to Witte, there is only “anecdotal” evidence behind this claim (49).

In Witte’s view, if students are indeed comfortable in electronic environments, they should not exhibit the level of difficulty she observes (49). Her survey investigates which kinds of interfaces students have experienced and how these experiences might influence their reactions to Moodle (50).

Drawing on genre theory, Witte proposes, highlights the ways an interface cues users to control what behaviors and actions are acceptable, requiring users to determine the “appropriate response” in the rhetorical situation established by the interface (52). Citing Carolyn Miller, Witte considers genre “a way of understanding how a text responds to a particular recurring situation” (50). Just as Microsoft Word’s presentation of a blank page cues an essaylike response rather than a social-media post, the CMS signals certain kinds of “typified” actions (51).

Arguing that writing studies has not explored electronic interfaces through this theoretical lens, Witte contends that interfaces have generally been seen as tools to produce other things rather than as “text[s] with both expectations and formal conventions” of their own (50). Instructors, she proposes, are like other users of electronic environments in that their use of these familiar programs becomes “unconscious or invisible” because they are so accustomed to the process (51). Her study foregrounds the need for teachers to be more alert to the ways that their use of a CMS acts as a genre students must interpret and positions them in certain ways in the classroom environment (50). Teachers’ understanding of this interaction, she maintains, can help students use a CMS more effectively.

Witte notes two common models of CMS use. In many cases, the system attempts to “replicate” a classroom environment, allowing students to complete familiar academic tasks such as taking quizzes and completing assignments. A second model treats the CMS as a “repository” where students go to procure whatever they need for the class. These models share a “top-down” quality in that the teacher decides on the categories and sections and provides the material (52-53). The models limit students to responding in ways determined by the instructor and indicated by the conventions incorporated into the interface (53).

For Witte, a “guiding assumption” in the study was “that people learn unfamiliar genres by determining how they are like and unlike genres they know and by observing how the unfamiliar genre is used in context” (50). Hence, her survey asks the 68 participating students which interfaces they normally interact with (54). It also asks multiple-choice and open-ended questions about students’ experiences with Moodle, including ease of use and kinds of use across classes. Finally, students were asked what they liked about the CMS and what improvements they might suggest (54).

The majority of the participants were in their first college semesters. Witte proposes that while these students might be among the most likely to report problems with the CMS, surveying this particular population yielded good information on how best to help students navigate their early exposure to such platforms (54).

Data revealed that students used a variety of social media, Word tools for producing documents, and “Miscellaneous Web-based Interfaces” like iTunes, E-bay, or YouTube (54). They most commonly relied on the CMS to “complete course work and to find the information necessary” to do so (55). All of the students used Moodle in some of their classes. Grounded-theory coding of the open-ended responses produced four categories of “likes” that focused on availability of materials and information and ease of completing tasks. Students’ suggestions for improvement addressed usability issues, “Mobile Device Compatibility,” and inconsistency in the ways teachers used the CMS (54).

Analysis of her data suggests to Witte that students receive conflicting genre cues about the function of the CMS, sometimes assuming it is more like social media sites than it is in practice and in fact asking for more interactivity with their mobile devices and other media choices (56). They may see certain cues as inviting informal, interactive responses while other require a more “school/professional response” in which they become “passive consumer[s] of information” (56). In Witte’s view, instructors do not always articulate clearly exactly what role the CMS should play in their individual courses; moreover, students may approach the CMS with a different idea about its purposes than the instructor intends (57).

Seeing a CMS as a genre, Witte contends, helps instructors think about their use of the program in terms of audience, redirecting the focus from “its technological affordances to what it does or how it is used in particular context for particular people” (57). She urges instructors to plan CMS structure in accordance with course design, for example, arranging a course built around weekly schedules by weeks and courses meant to provide materials without regard to due date by topic. The survey reveals that students may need specific direction about the type of response indicated by CMS features, like text boxes or discussion forums (57). Instructors are urged to clarify their own purposes and expectations for how students use the resource and to communicate these explicitly (57-58).

Witte also argues that casting a CMS as a genre provides an opportunity to introduce students to genre theory and to understand through a concrete example how audience and purpose relate to the conventions of a particular form. In this view, students can explore how to use their exposure to other genres to situate new genres like a CMS in their contexts when they encounter them (58); they may then carry the experience of navigating a CMS into their interactions with other texts they may be called on to respond to or produce.