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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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Tarsa, Rebecca. Online Interface as Exordium. CE, Sept. 2015. Posted 09/29/2015.

Tarsa, Rebecca. “Upvoting the Exordium: Literacy Practices of the Digital Interface.” College English 78.1 (2015):12-33. Print.

Rebecca Tarsa proposes strategies for creating an effective “exordium” for writing classrooms by examining how the digital interface works as an exordium in online participatory sites in which students voluntarily contribute writing. She draws on Teena Carnegie’s work to argue that the interface of an online site meets Cicero’s definition of the exordium as an appeal designed to “make the listener ‘well-disposed, attentive, and receptive’ to the ensuring speech” (25). In the case of an online site, the interface as exordium accomplishes this goal by “project[ing] to users the potential for interactivity within the site that matches their desired engagement while also supporting the ends of the site itself” (25-26).

To determine how interfaces affect students’ writing decisions, Tarsa drew on interviews with thirty students at two institutions, one a two-year college and the other a research university (15). The students were members of the general-education population and not necessarily advanced online writers (16). Using grounded theory methodology, Tarsa developed her observations after coding the interviews (16-17). More than three-quarters of the students voluntarily raised the issue of the effects of a site’s interface, leading Tarsa to recognize it as an important element in students’ online participation (17). She notes that her conclusions about student activities were based on self-report and cannot be considered generalizable, but argues that using “students’ own perceptions” is valuable because it provides useful additions to “our understanding of digital participatory cultures” (18).

Tarsa introduces the concept of “affordances,” which she defines as “the potential interaction offered to users by a tool or feature of a site’s interface” (18). She focuses on two kinds of affordances, “[e]ntry” and “qualitative” (18, 22). Entry affordances, she writes, affect student decisions about participation long before they have accessed any content. Such affordances involve the appearance of a site, which the students Tarsa interviewed often seemed to judge as inviting or uninviting, perhaps ‘boring” (student, qtd. in Tarsa 19). A second important feature of an interface that influences participation is the registration process, if one is in place. Tarsa found that students might use a site extensively yet resist the step of signing up, in some cases because they felt they already had too many accounts and passwords (20). Tarsa found that “usability” was not a determining factor in students’ decisions; rather, they were likely to judge whether or not a particular feature or requirement was “useful” (20). For example, acquiring the ability to access a site on a mobile device was useful to some of the students interviewed (20-21).

Students who ultimately decided to register, Tarsa reports, tended to do so either because they “had something in particular they wanted to contribute” or because “they wanted to customize their interface experience or vote on content” (21). In such cases, the students had regularly visited the sites before deciding to sign up. She posits that although a desire to write was not necessarily the primary motivation, having registered cleared the way for future engagement, for example writing (21).

Tarsa depicts “qualitative affordances” as invitations to interact, initially through voting on the quality of content. She writes that such judgments of quality can involve sharing, “liking” (a “one-way” judgment), or voting up or down (a “two-way” assessment) (22). Tarsa argues that the ability to vote offers users a safe, visible, easy-to-use means of becoming a contributor to an online community. Such actions by users become a form of agency, as audiences determine what content will become successful.

The existence of qualitative affordances, Tarsa posits, is one factor in overcoming users’ resistance to entry affordances, like registration (23). Eliminating this resistance positions users to take the next step of writing. Regular involvement in voting activities “create[s] higher levels of comfort with and investment in a site overall” (24), necessary components if a user is going to risk the “range of anxieties” (23) inherent in writing. Thus, the ability to vote on content drew the students Tarsa interviewed into sites where “all but one” of those who had registered for the purpose of voting “eventually went on to participate within those sites via writing” (23).

Invoking Carnegie’s theory, Tarsa proposes that the work of motivating writing begins with the features of the interface working as exordium, particularly in promising and facilitating the “interactivity” that leads to a sense of “connection” and “acceptance” (Carnegie, qtd. in Tarsa 26). Interacting with other users through the qualitative affordances enabled by the interface leads writers to an awareness of audiences beyond their immediate sphere (28). While the threat of being voted down may discourage some writing, in Tarsa’s view, the familiarity with interaction that results from these affordances is more likely to encourage writing than to “quash” it (27). She notes that a particular exordium will not appeal to every user; each online culture competes with so others that any site seeking to prompt participation must hone its interface with careful attention to its intended audience (26-27).

Tarsa sees challenges in creating a classroom exordium that makes use of the features that interfaces provide in online cultures. She states that the ability to write on impulse with little cost or risk fuels participation in online interaction; this “spontaneity” is difficult to reproduce in the classroom (29). Options like blogging, while promising, must be designed so as to reduce entry barriers like “schedul[ing] time to write the assigned post, navigat[ing] to the site, and log[ging] in before they can write” (29). Making entry routines part of a regular class day is one possible step toward encouraging participation. Similarly, class discussion does not mimic the interactivity offered by qualitative affordances because of the risk speaking up poses and its inability to indicate spontaneous reactions.

Tarsa suggests incorporating versions of more popular qualitative affordances like “liking” or supplying links to related material into such activities as selection of material for a digital bibliography (29-30). Finally, the features of online participatory sites can play “an ongoing part in rhetorical inquiry” into “the relationship between author and audience” (30). In Tarsa’s view, such efforts to exploit the features of the online exordium that invite writing can also encourage it in classrooms.