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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.


Grouling and Grutsch McKinney. Multimodality in Writing Center Texts. C&C, in press, 2016. Posted 08/21/2016.

Grouling, Jennifer, and Grutsch McKinney, Jackie. “Taking Stock: Multimodality in Writing Center Users’ Texts.” (In press.) Computers and Composition (2016). Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

Jennifer Grouling and Jackie Grutsch McKinney note that the need for multimodal instruction has been accepted for more than a decade by composition scholars (1). But they argue that the scholarship supporting multimodality as “necessary and appropriate” in classrooms and writing centers has tended to be “of the evangelical vein” consisting of “think pieces” rather than actual studies of how multimodality figures in classroom practice (2).

They present a study of multimodality in their own program at Ball State University as a step toward research that explores what kinds of multimodal writing takes place in composition classrooms (2). Ball State, they report, can shed light on this question because “there has been programmatic and curricular support here [at Ball State] for multimodal composition for nearly a decade now” (2).

The researchers focus on texts presented to the writing center for feedback. They ask three specific questions:

Are collected texts from writing center users multimodal?

What modes do students use in creation of their texts?

Do students call their texts multimodal? (2)

For two weeks in the spring semester, 2014, writing center tutors asked students visiting the center to allow their papers to be included in the study. Eighty-one of 214 students agreed. Identifying information was removed and the papers stored in a digital folder (3).

During those two weeks as well as the next five weeks, all student visitors to the center were asked directly if their projects were multimodal. Students could respond “yes,” “no,” or “not sure” (3). The purpose of this extended inquiry was to ensure that responses to the question during the first two “collection” weeks were not in some way unrepresentative. Grouling and Grutsch McKinney note that the question could be answered online or in person; students were not provided with a definition of “multimodal” even if they expressed confusion but only told to “answer as best they could” (3).

The authors decided against basing their study on the argument advanced by scholars like Jody Shipka and Paul Prior that “all communication practices have multimodal components” because such a definition did not allow them to see the distinctions they were investigating (3). Definitions like those presented by Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus that emphasize the “conscious” use of certain components also proved less helpful because students were not interviewed and their conscious intent could not be accessed (3). However, Bowen and Whithaus also offered a “more succinct definition” that proved useful: “multimodality is the ‘designing and composing beyond written words'” (qtd. in Grouling and Grutsch McKinney 3).

Examination of the papers led the researchers to code for a “continuum” of multimodality rather than a present/not-present binary (3-4). Fifty-seven, or 74%, of the papers were composed only in words and were coded as zero or “monomodal” (4). Some papers occupied a “grey area” because of elements like bulleted lists and tables. The researchers coded texts using bullets as “1” and those using lists and tables “2.” These categories shared the designation “elements of graphic design”; 19.8%, or 16, papers met this designation. Codes “3” and “4” indicated one or more modes beyond text and thus indicated “multimodal” work. No paper received a “4”; only eight, or 9.9%, received a “3,” indicating inclusion of one mode beyond words (4). Thus, the study materials exhibited little use of multimodal elements (4).

In answer to the second question, findings indicated that modes used even by papers coded “3” included only charts, graphs, and images. None used audio, video, or animation (4). Grouling and Grutsch McKinney posit that the multimodal elements were possibly not “created by the student” and that the instructor or template may have prompted the inclusion of such materials (5).

They further report that they could not tell whether any student had “consciously manipulated” elements of the text to make it multimodal (5). They observe that in two cases, students used visual elements apparently intended to aid in development of a paper in progress (5).

The “short answer” to the third research question, whether students saw their papers as multimodal, was “not usually” (5; emphasis original). Only 6% of 637 appointments and 6% of writers of the 81 collected texts answered yes. In only one case in which the student identified the paper as multimodal did the coders agree. Two of the five texts called multimodal by students received a code of 0 from the raters (5). Students were more able to recognize when their work was not multimodal; 51 of 70 texts coded by the raters as monomodal were also recognized as such by their authors (5).

Grouling and Grutsch McKinney express concern that students seem unable to identify multimodality given that such work is required in both first-year courses, and even taking transfer students into account, the authors note that “the vast majority” of undergraduates will have taken a relevant course (6). They state that they would be less concerned that students do not use the term if the work produced exhibited multimodal features, but this was not the case (6).

University system data indicated that a plurality of writing center attendees came from writing classes, but students from other courses produced some of the few multimodal pieces, though they did not use the term (7).

Examining program practices, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney determined that often only one assignment was designated “multimodal”—most commonly, presentations using PowerPoint (8). The authors advocate for “more open” assignments that present multimodality “as a rhetorical choice, and not as a requirement for an assignment” (8). Such emphasis should be accompanied by “programmatic assessment” to determine what students are actually learning (8-9).

The authors also urge more communication across the curriculum about the use of multiple modes in discipline-specific writing. While noting that advanced coursework in a discipline may have its own vocabulary and favored modes, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney argue that sharing the vocabulary from composition studies with faculty across disciplines will help students see how concepts from first-year writing apply in their coursework and professional careers (9).

The authors contend that instructors and tutors should attend to “graphic design elements” like “readability and layout” (10). In all cases, they argue, students should move beyond simply inserting illustrations into text to a better “integration” of modes to enhance communication (10). Further, incorporating multimodal concepts in invention and composing can enrich students’ understanding of the writing process (10). Such developments, the authors propose, can move the commitment to multimodality beyond the “evangelical phase” (11).