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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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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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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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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).


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Hum, Sue. Racialized Gaze, Design. CE, 1/15. Posted 3/2/2015.

Hum, Sue. “‘Between the Eyes’: The Racialized Gaze as Design.” College English 77.3 (2015): 191-215. Print.

Sue Hum, associate professor of English at the University of Texas, San Antonio, examines the 19th-century political cartoons of Thomas Nast to argue that the assumptions, ideologies, stereotypes, and received knowledge of our social, cultural, and political environments constitute a “lifeworld” that inescapably influences our choices in designing visual messages. She focuses on the “racialized gaze” that, she contends, as one of the “habits of looking” (191) to which all design is subject, undercuts Nast’s efforts to ameliorate anti-immigrant attitudes and legislation directed at Chinese populations from the mid-1800s well into the 20th century. Her exploration of Nast’s activist visual rhetoric leads to a call for teachers and scholars involved in the analysis and production of visual rhetoric, particularly as it becomes a focus in English Studies classrooms, to become more alert to the degree to which the readily “available resources” provided by our “lifeworld” direct and constrain our choices in design (197-99).

Hum develops her argument along two axes. The first involves the “characteristics” of “sight” and “site,” which she sees functioning as verbs. Sight as a verb results in the use of visible markers to stand in for a range of judgments about the nature of an individual; visible characteristics take on the power of “facticity,” informing us of supposed truths about a person based solely on what she looks like (194-5, 199-201). “Site” uses these visible markers to incorporate individuals into a “homogenous group” that can then be located in an extant social and cultural hierarchy (195, 202-3).

The second axis is that of the “dynamics” of “authenticity” and “universality,” which Hum sees acting as nouns. Authenticity requires the use of visual detail to represent individuals in the ways that the contemporaneous culture views as accurate representations (195-96, 203-04). For example, Nast used elaborate, stereotypical indications such as flowing robes and long queues to establish the ethnicity of his Chinese subjects. Universality involves depictions that attempt to establish the shared humanity of different groups, for example, by attempting to evoke sympathy for the anguish felt by a bullied “coolie” in an 1869 cartoon (196, 205-08). This attempt to subsume specific cultures by incorporating them into the conception promoted by the dominant social order of what it means to be a fellow human, Hum contends, “elides the lived experiences of people of color by overlooking how differences are produced by histories of oppression and ideologies of exclusion” (196). Hum argues that these two dynamics function both simultaneously and at odds with each other. The care Nast took to mark his subjects as Chinese rendered them inescapably alien even as he hoped to show their commonality with the culture that characterized them as the “yellow peril” and a dangerous “horde” (195, 206, 204)

Thus, Hum writes, the “racialized gaze” invests the visible with the power of a truth that is in fact a product of the culture’s readily available beliefs and expectations. It focuses on markers of difference as statements about individuals and groups and in doing so, reinforces extant hierarchies and divisions even when meant to challenge them. Hum’s closing suggests that awareness of such tendencies can temper their power and urges scholars and teachers in English Studies to cultivate such awareness in the examination and production of visual rhetoric: “This historical inquiry offers students an understanding of the broad array of contextual decisions involved in producing images” and “highlights how well-intentioned designers, as a result of the perceptual habits of their time, may be blind to the ideological grammar, structures, and conventions of their lifeworlds. . . .” (210).