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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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Cunningham, Jennifer. African American Digital Language. C&C, June 2018. Posted 06/07/2018.

Cunningham, Jennifer M. ‘“wuz good wit u bro’: Patterns of Digital African American Language Use in Two Modes of Communication.” Computers and Composition 48 (2018): 67-84. Web. 30 May 2018.

Jennifer M. Cunningham reports a study of three male African American college students living in Ohio as they communicated with each other via text messages (73). Cunningham analyzed the messages for features of digital language (DL), African American language (AAL), and digital African American language (DAAL). She compared the results with those from a 2014 study of 100 comments posted by 19 African American college students on My Space (72). Her goal was to determine whether the features of the three language classes remained consistent across the different purposes, audiences, and platforms. In her view, consistency across these different contexts indicate the degree to which a form of language use is a stable, rule-governed literacy (72).

The author contends that efforts within writing pedagogy to build on languages with which students are familiar and in which they are already accomplished in order to build a bridge to Standard American English can benefit from learning more about how people communicate outside of the classroom (82). Cunningham reports research showing that text messaging is a favored form of communication among both adolescents and college students (68). She argues that studies of digital communication provide a view of how literacies are used for “authentic communicative purposes in . . . non-academic spaces” (67), and, as such, offer important lessons for writing pedagogy.

Cunningham reviews work by scholars who have examined and classified features of DL and AAL language groups. However, her previous study of DAAL is unique in that, except for her work, “there are no existing theoretical frameworks or coding categories that specifically address AAL as it is used to communicate in a digital environment” (73). As a result, for coding, she drew on tables she developed for her 2014 My Space study (73-74).

The author notes that in some views, digital language is considered a substandard form of communication with deleterious impacts on the literacy of users (68, 70). Scholars, however, have argued that the ability to exploit “textisms” like “initialisms” (e.g., “lol”), “letter/number homophones” (e.g., “b4”), and various forms of “shortenings” or “deletions” indicates a larger language-use repertoire rather than a deficit (68). Research suggests that fluidity in the “code-meshing” (69) involved in DL correlates with better reading skills (68, 82).

Cunningham writes that, similarly, African American Language has been labeled “an inferior form of communication that can negatively affect literacy” (69). Scholarship has recognized AAL as a “rule-governed language and literacy” with West-African roots and an English vocabulary (69). Cunningham discusses use patterns in AAL that demonstrate the affinity of AAL with West-African grammar and phonology, including “zero copula,” which occurs because in these language families there is “no form or conjugates of ‘to be’” and the conversion of “th” sounds, which do not occur in the African phonologies, to various alternatives such “d” sounds (71).

She explains her coding process for analysis of 380 messages consisting of 3136 words (73-74). “Open coding” classified the 3136 “instances” into “one of eight DL subcategories, one of six AAL phonological subcategories, and/or one of eight AAL grammatical subcategories” (73). In both the text messages and the social-network posts, Standard American English (SAE) accounted for most of the instances, (54.9% and 59.1%, respectively), but “SAE was not further coded” in the study (73).

In each subcategory, Cunningham reports substantial consistency between the text messages and the My Space posts. She notes some areas of difference. For example, in the subcategory DL, punctuation tended to be missing in the text messages but “excessive” in the social media posts (e.g., !!!) (75).

Some differences could be attributed to specific word choices by participants. In the AAL phonological subcategories, the two sets of texts differed considerably in the feature Cunningham designates as “Syllables”: “Unstressed syllables may be omitted and two pronounced words in AE may become one construction in AAL” (76). The more prominent occurrence of this feature in the text messages may have resulted from the three men’s regular use of “ight” to mean “all right” (76). Similarly, the verbal choices of “specific interlocutors” accounted for a disparity in the use of “Replacement th” in which the “th” sound is replaced with “d”; “several participants” in the social-media posts tended to use a particular example of this construction (76-77).

The author analyzes the degree to which the features she examined affected “functionality” (78). DAAL appeared designed to “creat[e] concise words, phrases, and sentences that are noticeably different from SAE while also approximating spoken AAL” (78). Writing that AAL is already “a more concise language” (78) and “a pragmatic language” (81), Cunningham contends that DL as used by African American speakers reflects these tendencies.

The author examines scholarship that contends that DL itself is “a hybrid between speech and writing,” creating “a new linguistic system” (69). Cunningham contends that the combination of DL and AAL creates a literacy, DAAL, that employs representations that differ from Standard American English both visually and by “approximating spoken AAL” (78). She found that the features of AAL that were incorporated into DAAL were more consistent across the two corpora than were the DL constructions, suggesting that DL is evolving as it is used in different contexts while “AAL is a more established and less fluctuating form of communication” (80).

In her view, her results reveal DAAL to be a hybrid practice with features that are consistent across contexts and therefore can be identified as a literacy in which users “follow innate and learned linguistic and paralinguistic rules to compose consistent and somewhat predictable written messages” (81). She argues that as an example of enhanced “heteroglossia” and as a way for students to “combine, alter, and mesh” both academic and non-academic language forms in response to differing contexts (81), DL and DAAL should be valued not only as stable, rule-governed linguistic practices but as contributors to “rhetorical awareness and writing ability” (82).