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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.


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Mays, Chris. Fact and Fabrication in Creative Nonfiction. Mar. 2018. Posted 04/04/2018.

Mays, Chris. ‘“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction.” College English 80.4 (2018): 319-41. Print.

Chris Mays explores the creation of meaning in writing through an examination of the relationship between “fact” and “fabrication” in the genre of creative nonfiction (321). He links this analysis to a 1985 article by Jim W. Corder arguing that adherence to the “narrative” each of us creates to structure our lives makes it difficult to “accommodate . . . differences” we encounter with others’ narratives (319). Mays finds an illustration of this difficulty in debates over factual accuracy in creative nonfiction.

Mays argues that writing in general excels in giving an impression of representing facts in “straightforward” ways, often appearing most praiseworthy “when a writer ‘just tells it like it is’ . . . or writes in ‘plain language’” (320). Any “simplicity” thus created, Mays contends, masks writing’s “own incredible complexity” (320). Ultimately, in Mays’s view, the power of writing to make the meaning it creates appear straightforward and uncontestable, while hiding the process through which that meaning was produced, leads to the kind of insularity Corder describes (321, 337).

Mays approaches the issue of meaning in writing through genre theory. He reports scholarship on genre that depicts genre as a categorization that “organizes writing into recognizable forms” (326); quoting Carolyn R. Miller, he portrays genre as the “form” of writing that “shapes the response of the reader or listener to substance by providing instruction . . . about how to perceive and interpret” (qtd. in Mays 324). Genres, he writes, tend to look “stable” but are actually in constant flux, with the result that readers respond to representations of facts differently when they encounter them in different genres, which themselves are responsive to different contexts (325):

[F]acts emerge out of genres, and how the boundary lines of fact and fiction are drawn is dependent on the genres in which one is observing the facts. (325)

For Mays, looking at creative nonfiction as a contextualized, fluid genre illuminates how genre assumptions affect attitudes toward facticity particularly because the history of this genre reveals ongoing tensions over the degree to which authors of creative nonfiction deal with “facts” versus “subjective experience” (321). Mays finds that, even though writers in the genre acknowledge the subjectivity introduced by literary techniques, definitions of creative nonfiction emphasize its allegiance to facts (321, 324). He argues that the tension inherent in the genre is especially useful in revealing how concerns about the facticity of writing “shift the focus away from the complex mechanism by which all facts are created and maintained” (326), thus illustrating an important feature of writing itself.

To explore these issues, Mays dissects controversy over the use of facts in the satire of David Sedaris. He analyzes the critique of Alex Heard, who condemns Sedaris’s use of elaboration and apparent invention as violations of what Heard sees as a sacrosanct obligation of writers of creative nonfiction: not to “make things up” (qtd. in Mays 329). Other respondents defended Sedaris as engaged in telling stories in which fabrications lead to “composite truths” valuable in themselves (328, 335). Mays’s interest revolves around the degree to which the criteria applied to Sedaris are “extremely passionate” (328) and “rigid” (327). He argues that the negative critics of Sedaris create inviolate genres that they believe are stable and judge the handling of facts by these rules (330). “Observers” of the creative-nonfiction genre, he writes,

often just do not perceive that there are different ways of drawing genre boundaries and intensely defend the singularity of their views. (328)

For Mays, this reaction to fact within the genre, which he depicts as widespread (321), sheds light on the tendency to forget that writing as writing is always, in Kenneth Burke’s terms, both a “selectio[n]” and a “deflection of reality” (qtd. in Mays 338; emendation in Mays). Mays contends that writing disguises the process of selection that generates a multiplicity of “facts” (329).

Mays further argues for the contextual nature of facts by noting that although “community influence” (330), for example that of the community of creative nonfiction writers, may affect decisions about what counts as an acceptable allegiance to facts, even writers within the community still generate bounded genres that drive their attitude toward the representation of their material. Writers in the genre may contend that Sedaris’s exploitation of subjectivity shirks what Heard calls the “ethical requirements” of fidelity to reality in order to sell more effectively (qtd. in Mays 330), yet Mays also cites memoirist William Bradley, whose criteria recognize “different kinds of truths” (331), and the controversy surrounding Mike Daisey’s depiction of working conditions at Apple facilities in China. Daisey asserted that his genre was “theater,” not “journalism,” and thus his problematic representation of the conditions he reported was justified (333-34).

Mays ties the question of how facts are made to the classroom by referencing “the oft-made demand for a focus on plain facts in first-year writing” (336). This demand, in his view, can be attributed to an ongoing hope for “perfect writing” that fully represents reality (337). For Mays, such writing can never exist because “writers will never be able to fully control or stabilize what is truth, fact, or fabrication in their writing” (336). In his view, complexity theory suggests that problems arise because one’s construction of reality precludes the ability to perceive what is left out of that construction (332). The act of writing in itself creates complexity, which imbues writing with this characteristic blindness (332, 335). Thus, a section title asserts, “All Writing is Dishonest (and Honest)” (333).

Citing Bronwyn T. Williams to note that some reliance on facts is necessary for day-to-day living (325), and recognizing the challenge of a “workable” acceptance that all facts are contextual (332), Mays agrees with Jane Bennett that “recognit[ion] that . . . other divergent configurations exist, even if we cannot perceive them,” is “an ethical necessity” (333). He concludes that Corder’s exhortation to extend our awareness beyond our own narratives inevitably encounters the degree to which the creation of those narratives generates the very conditions that make moving beyond them so difficult (337). Mays argues for intensified awareness of the partiality of any written truth and of the degree to which a rigid insistence on facts can limit our appreciation of different kinds of writing and what this diversity can achieve (338).


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Rodrigo and Romberger. Roles of “Writing Program Technologists.” C&C June 2017. Posted 07/25/2017.

Rodrigo, Rochelle, and Julia Romberger. “Managing Digital Technologies in Writing Programs: Writing Program Technologists and Invisible Service.” Computers and Composition 44 (2017): 67-82. Web. 13 July 2017.

Rochelle Rodrigo and Julia Romberger discuss their concerns that the work done in writing programs by faculty with expertise in technology is often not recognized by programs or institutions. To highlight this issue, they interviewed 23 faculty at the 2012 Computers and Writing Conference (72). Because the data consisted of “detailed anecdotes,” the authors consider their project a “phenomenological study to learn about what is going on in the field” and to determine whether the issue of recognition for technology experts merits investigation (79). They contend that the degree to which digital modes have become central to writing instruction makes the issue worth further study.

The authors create the designation “Writing Program Technologist” (WPT) for “faculty who have scholarly expertise in various technologies” (67-68). They see the role of such faculty as in part a labor issue in that much of the work needed to support digital spaces falls under “service” rather than research or teaching (70); Writing Studies, they argue, has not fully examined what is involved when particular faculty play supporting roles in programs that incorporate online and digital learning (68).

Rodrigo and Romberger locate what they consider a “gap” (68) in scholarship in a set of pervasive cultural and rhetorical perspectives on technology. In these views, technology is a neutral tool to which work can be “handed over” (Carolyn Miller, qtd. in Rodrigo and Romberger 68). The tool itself acquires authority that can override human agency and knowledge (69); even though it is considered “basic, like the hammer” (77), it is at the same time often seen as “magical,” with the human effort needed to produce and sustain it hidden from common view (69).

Rodrigo and Romberger detect a shift in revisions of outcomes documents from the Council of Writing Program Administrators in which technology moves from being “a separate plank” to an “infusion of technological awareness and expertise throughout the statement” (69). In their view, this infusion increases the need for explicit articulation of WPT work, which, they contend, does not appear in either the 1998 CCCC Promotion and Tenure Guidelines for Work with Technology nor the 2015 update (68).

The authors note a range of WPT activities, from informal help for other faculty to setting up and maintaining networked classrooms and other spaces for digital writing. They write that faculty not engaged specifically in WPT work do not always realize that technology presents “a moving target” (68) as software and devices evolve regularly and WPTs must remain up to date. They note that the documentation necessary to formally account for the variety of services WPTs perform “added another layer of work” to unspecified duties already performed (78) and therefore might not be undertaken; only 4 interviewees reported doing “any sort of accounting” of their labor (73). As an aid to WPTs working to make their contributions visible and valued, the authors point to the history of the position of writing program administrator (WPA) and efforts to ensure that activities related to this position are recognized as intellectual work (72).

Of the 23 interviewees, only nine had formal job titles, with WPT assignments often overlapping with a designation as WPA (73), a reflection, the authors state, of the growing importance of digital modes within some programs. WPT work, the interviews note, did not end when appointments as WPAs ended (73).

Types of compensation varied from stipends to course releases to resource allocation (73-74). The study uncovered less tangible forms of compensation as well. Interviewees addressed rewards accruing from increased contact and influence across their campuses as they served on committees with decision-making power (74). One interview noted the agency provided by the expertise:

There’s a great power in being a volunteer that we tend to underestimate because you get to choose your projects. You’re accountable for only the things you want to be accountable for. So that, I don’t know how much I would want to be compensated. (qtd. in Rodrigo and Romberger 75)

Apropos of this kind of response, Rodrigo and Romberger note a concern that WPTs can be highly intrinsically motivated to take on the extra duties their expertise permits and that this motivation can be seen by some both within and outside of the WPT community as reward enough (76). WPTs take on tasks that enable their own work as well as that of fellow faculty (74). Desires for compensation, in these cases, focused on acquiring the “space,” “time,” and “resource support” to achieve individual and scholarly goals (74-75).

Citing Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital, the authors work to chart the accumulation of both positive and negative forms but find quantifying this accumulation difficult (77). Interviewees who report increased status because of their cross-campus networking are balanced by those who find their expertise being taken advantage of. Some interviewees felt that colleagues did not fully understand what they did (77).

Rodrigo and Romberger write that the value assigned to WPT work and the sense of appreciation and recognition expressed by the WPTs themselves is “highly contextual,” dependent on the particular configuration of the program involved as well as on the status of the WPT him- or herself; non-tenure-track or contingent faculty reported negative experiences that the authors link specifically to their positions within the institution (76-77). The authors did not collect data that allowed them to compare experiences across different institutions because “individual contexts would be too variable and anecdotes too likely to be traceable back to a particular individual at a particular institution” (73). Further research might include such data.

Rodrigo and Romberger detect changes in the role of WPTs as digital work becomes more diffuse across campuses; some of their interviewees report evidence of a shift from “a support worker” to a role within “the decision making infrastructure” (78). Although the authors encourage providing job descriptions, titles, and documentation for WPT work as such changes develop, some interviewees report that such descriptions actually limit the work they want to do (78). The authors suggest, finally, that “[t]he closely related, sometimes overlapping, work between the WPT and the WPA means that carefully mapping both jobs and the relationships between them might benefit both individuals” (78).