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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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Omizo & Hart-Davidson. Genre Signals in Academic Writing. JoWR, 2016. Posted 24 May 2016.

Omizo, Ryan, and William Hart-Davidson. “Finding Genre Signals in Academic Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 7.3 (2016): 485-509. Web. 18 May 2016.

Ryan Omizo and William Hart-Davidson, publishing in a special section on digital text analysis in the Journal of Writing Research, report on a process for investigating markers of genres, specifically in academic writing. They hope to develop a tool that will help advisors and advisees in graduate programs recognize differences between the rhetorical moves made by experienced writers in a field and those more likely to appear in the work of less experienced writers.

They draw on “rhetorical genre theory” to state that although particular kinds of text “recur” in the scholarship of a given field, simply learning patterns for these generic texts does not necessarily produce the kind of text that characterizes expert writing within the field (486). Specific instances of a particular genre vary from the “stable textual patterns” that are easy to identify (486).

As a result, the authors contend, understanding that textual patterns actually constitute rhetorical moves is a necessary component of successfully participating in a genre. Omizo and Hart-Davidson characterize the markers of a genre as “signals shared by author and reader about the social activity—the genre—they are co-negotiating” (486). Understanding the rhetorical purposes of genre features allows novice writers to use them effectively.

The authors work with 505 research articles from the SpringerOpen Journal archive. In order to determine how particular genre markers function as social signals, they begin by developing a coding scheme that mimics what human readers might do in finding clusters of words that do social work within a genre. They give the example of identifying a move essential to an article that can be labeled “science”: “propositional hedging,” in which the writer qualifies a claim to reflect stronger or weaker evidence (487). Omizo and Hart-Davidson argue that in searching for such moves, it is possible to identify a “key protein,” or crucial marker, that indicates the presence of the move (487).

After this initial coding, the authors analyze the texts and convert the markers they find to a graph that allows them to calculate “the relationships between words” (487), which then make visible similarities and differences between the uses of markers in expert work and in novice work, with the intention of allowing advisors and advisees to address the reasons for differences (489).

Their study addresses citation styles in chemistry and materials science (502). They argue that citations are among important kinds of “signaling work” that “communicate something about a text’s status as a response to a familiar kind of exigency to a particular audience” (488). They hoped to find “classifiable patterns in citations moves” that varied “consistently” between experienced and novice writers (489).

They review other ways of categorizing in-text citations, some recognizing as many as twelve different uses of citations. For their own purposes, they created four categories of in-text citations that could be recognized from “premarked cue phrases” similar to those used by D. Marcu, who used phrases marked with “although” and “yet” to locate rhetorical moves (491). Omizo and Hart-Davidson’s scheme, they contend, can recognize types of citation moves and assign them rhetorical functions across disciplines, without requiring any specific knowledge of the discipline or field in which the moves occur (490). Moreover, they argue that their system can distinguish between “mentor and mentee texts” (491).

They categorize citations into

  • Extractions: This term denotes “an idea paraphrased from source [sic] and attributed via a parenthetical reference” (491). In an extraction, the paraphrase itself does not reference the source. Such a rhetorical choice, they posit, “prioritize[s] the information” rather than the source author[s] as “active agents” (491).
  • Groupings: These include “3 or more sources within a parenthesis or brackets” (492). The authors see the social function of groupings as an indication of how the writer or writers locate their work on the topic in question in the larger disciplinary field. As opposed to an extraction, which notes “what particular agents are saying” about a topic, groupings indicate what “a community of scholars is saying” (493). Groupings often facilitate the groundwork laid out in research-article introductions, in particular allowing scholars to establish their ethos as knowledgeable members of the relevant community (493).
  • Author(s) as Actant(s): In this category, the author(s) of the source appear in the sentence as subjects or objects. The category also requires a publication date (493). Omizo and Hart-Davidson see this form of citation as “a qualitatively different means to engage with sourced material” (495), specifically allowing the writer of the current paper to interact directly with others in the field, whether to “affirm, extend, complicate, or challenge” (495).
  • Non-citations: This category encompasses all other sentences in an article, including references to named authors using pronouns or without specific dates (495). Recognizing that they are leaving out some moves that other coders might classify as citations, the authors argue that the limited “shallow parsing” their program uses allows them to more precisely determine “citational intrusion whereupon authors are making manifest their adherence to research conventions and signaling adjuncts to their arguments” (495). Thus, they exclude such components of a text as an extended discussion that is not marked by citation conventions.

Omizo and Hart-Davidson explain in detail how they convert the citation patterns their program discovers into graphs that allow them to chart the relationships between different citations (496-501). They believe that this process allows them to detect several phenomena that may be useful to advisors aiding students in developing their “scholarly voice” (507). The data suggest that it may be possible to use a coding scheme like the one proposed in this study to amass features that characterize a body of work by experienced writers and compare analogous features of an advisee’s draft in order to detect deviations that signal “that there is something this writer does not know about the ways others in the disciplinary area use” the particular feature, in this case citations (505).

For example, the data indicate that the papers of less experienced writers vary less and adhere to conventions more insistently than do those of more experienced writers, who have been exposed to more genres and whose status allows more deviation (503-04). Advisee papers exhibit more “elaboration” than do those of their mentors; Omizo and Hart-Davidson suggest that the detection of more Author(s)-as-Actant(s) citations signals this feature. Markers at the sentence level such as words like “actually” or “better” can point to the presence of more explicit evaluative stances in the work of the less experienced writers (505).

In sum, the authors propose that digital analysis can detect patterns in the citation practices of novice scholars that point to differences between their work and the work of more established scholars and thus can allow them to focus their revision on the rhetorical moves embodied in these differences.


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Geisler, Cheryl. Digital Analysis of Texts. JoWR, 2016. Posted 05/17/2016.

Geisler, Cheryl. “Current and Emerging Methods in the Rhetorical Analysis of Texts. Opening: Toward an Integrated Approach.” Journal of Writing Research 7.3 (2016): 417-24. Web. 08 May 2016.

Cheryl Geisler introduces a special section of the Journal of Writing Research focusing on the use of various digital tools to analyze texts. Noting the “rise of digital humanities,” which involves making use of the options software provides for “all sorts of rhetorical purposes,” Geisler and the authors of the articles in the special section ask two related questions: “How can we best understand the costs and benefits of adopting a particular approach? Are they simply alternatives or can they be integrated?” (418).

To experiment with different approaches, the authors of the special-section articles all worked with the same texts, a set of documents “produced by eight pairs of PhD advisors and their advisees” across the disciplines of Computer Science, Chemical Engineering, Materials Science Engineering, and Humanities and Social Sciences (418). This body of texts had been collected for a larger interview-based study of academic citation practices and source use conducted by one of the special-section authors, A. Karatsolis. Karatsolis’s coding was provided for half of the documents in the later study and the “coding schemes” were provided for all.

Geisler’s overview of the status of digital text analysis draws on the categories of I. Pollach, who proposed three types of analysis. To those categories, Geisler added two more, hand-coding and text mining. Geisler discusses

  • Hand-coding, in which human readers assign text elements to categories developed in a coding scheme;
  • Computer-aided content analysis, which draws on “content dictionaries” to “map words and phrases onto content categories”;
  • Computer-aided interpretive textual analysis, a.k.a. computer-assisted qualitative data analysis (CAQDAS), which aids human analysts in efforts to “manage, retrieve, code, and link data”;
  • Corpus linguistics, which searches texts for “words or terms that co-occur more often that [sic] would be expected by chance”; and
  • Text mining, which finds features pre-selected by humans. (419)

Geisler explores various current uses of each process and includes a list of software that combines qualitative and quantitative analysis (420-21). Her examples suggest that approaches like hand-coding and corpus linguistics are often combined with digital approaches. For example, one study used a “concordance tool (AntiConc)” to search teacher comments for traces of a “program-wide rubric” (421).

Discussing the possibility of an integrated approach, Geisler summarizes three examples. The first is from Helsinki University of Technology: the study combined “text-mining techniques with qualitative approaches” (421). A second, from 2011, is referred to as the KWALON Experiment. In this project, as in the study reported in the JOWR special section, researchers examined the same body of texts, a very large data set (421-22). Only one researcher was able to analyze the entire set, a result Geisler posits may result from the use of the digital concordance tool to select the texts before the researcher hand-coded them (422).

In the third example of integrated approaches, researchers from the University of Leipzig developed “Blended Reading,” in which digital tools help readers designate appropriate texts; expert human readers use “snippets” from the “most relevant” of these documents to “manually annotate” texts; and finally, these annotations contribute to “automatic detection” over “multiple iterations” to refine the process. The resulting tool can then be applied to the entire corpus. According to Geisler, “[w]hat is intriguing” about this example “is that it seems to combine high quality hand coding with automatic methods” (422).

Geisler offers the articles in the special section as a study of how “a choice of analytic methods both invites and constrains” rhetorical examination of texts (423).