Pedagogy Teaching

Adventures in Digital Rhetoric, part the first

Design by Fire Café #014
Design by Fire Café #014, Flickr

This term I’m teaching an ENGL 1102 course themed Digital Rhetoric and Interaction Design. It is a subject that has interested me since my corporate days at HBO cobbling together. I’m interested in discussions about how we use the tools and interfaces that we embrace so eagerly (at the moment I’m struggling to make my iPad keyboard respond with proper keystrokes.) As a website designer I’ve been guillty of assuming that ways in which I negotiate information and pursue tasks is in line with the ways in which (unknown to me) users work through the content I’ve presented. Sure it’s about aesthetics and kinesthetics and haptics and all the other -ics. But most users don’t think in terms of -ics. They get frustrated with interfaces that don’t make sense to them, or require too long a learning curve, or are just plain off-putting. And tied up in all this is technophobia – the cool kids get the software and the devices, so clearly it’s just me struggling to figure out how this helps me to do the things everyone keeps insisting I’ll be able to do oh, so much more easily.

As I see it, there’s a fundamental breakdown in communication between the users of technology and the people who are designing that technology *for them to use.* Users need to learn how to communicate their needs and struggles, and designers need to learn how to listen. This doesn’t happen at the corporate focus-group stage (I know from corporate experience that the people sitting behind those panes of glass really don’t want to be told that something doesn’t make sense.) It has to happen very early in the learning process.

Many of my smart and ambitious Georgia Tech students have starry-eyed dreams of coming up with the next million-dollar widget. That’s great. I would be so very, truly, over-the-moon happy for m/any of them to do so. But I expect those starry-eyed dreamers, training so assiduously in computer science, engineering, and computational media haven’t been given much of a grounding in visual and digital rhetoric. They don’t stop and think why one product works and why another doesn’t. They haven’t been encouraged to consider why they prefer Spotify to iTunes, or an iPad to a Nook, lor Prezi to PowerPoint – let alone how they might launch the next big thing.

My secondary comps were in Multimedia Theory and Design, and so I read a lot of Tufte, and Hodges, and all of those social semioticians. I read it as theory, although it made much more sense to me in praxis and I hope helped me to become a more reasonable and user-minded designer. Years later (last year, in fact) I was struggling to communicate with an old-school software programmer who had no time or patience for users or GUIs or the thought that goes into the process of working within a tool. To him, the command-line interface was comfortable, and he believed most adamantly that the wireframes and mock-ups and processes that I tried to articulate were really just getting in the way of his work, and the project and were just slowing us down. As I dealt with this mutual exasperation, it occurred to me that I could turn the experience into a useful experiment with first-year composition students. Here we go – back to pedagogy, as usual.

So I put together this course, based on the premise that these digital natives (insert sarcastic scare quotes here) had never been taught why they engage with technology in certain ways, why they gravitate toward one thing and veer away from another. They were born hard-wired, so I think the thinking went, and therefore they must know this stuff better than we ever could. The truth is, though, that they are just as clueless as we are.

The course is rooted in discernment: encouraging the students to make explicit their responses to certain interfaces and develop a sense of agency about their technology use. Two weeks into the course and I’ve been challenging them to articulate why they like what they like. I’ve also been bitching a lot about MS Office (but that’s just easy.) In a previous post I explained how we have started doing quick writes in Google Docs. I used the quick write information to craft some rough categories for further discussion and assignment shaping. The categories I defined were software, hardware, games, social media, and mobility. I thought this pretty well captured the breadth of examples they identified, and the ways in which they think they’re using various technologies.

Last week the students began working in the course blog; for their first post, I assigned the subject “software.” The topic read like this:

Examine a piece of software that you use every day. Frame your post using some or all of the following questions. Make sure to incorporate the usability testing exercise into your post. NB: software is a particular category that does not include web browsers, gaming, or social media. We will address those later in the term. Please ask me if you need clarification about what does or does not constitute software.

Distracted by other things, I thought this category made sense, and that students would think back to those Quick Write examples and understand exactly what I was after. The posts were to be due on Friday, 1/25 by 11pm (my usual assignment due-time.) I posted the assignment over MLK weekend, and by Wednesday I was getting e-mails: concerned questions from students asking if I would further define “software” for them. Software meant something different to almost every one of them; I fell into my own trap. The categories I had identified were muddy and overlapping. But this was a happy accident, and one in line with what I’ve been trying to encourage them to do – to push back, and question, and challenge authority and demand more of me as they should of the designers I keep talking about. So I took a deep breath, and wrote the five categories on a white board and asked volunteers from the class to scribe for their classmates and come up with a definition for each category. My favorite was the definition one section came up with for “mobility”: software + hardware + gaming + social media – wires. Oh, Georgia Tech students, how I love you. (BTW: another student forgot and tried to write the Google Doc Quick Write in C++. For a moment she forgot how to write in English.)

One section of the course is comprised solely of CS and CM majors; the other two are drawn from a cross-section of students across disciplines. And yet so far I haven’t noticed much difference between the specialists and the generalists. We’ll see how things start shaking out this week, as the students begin work on their group projects. Sherri Brown, the Reference and Subject Librarian for the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Tech Library and I are continuing our experiment in embedding (TECHStyle article forthcoming) with an experiment in usability testing. The library has been interested in getting some feedback about several of their resources, and so my students are going to collaborate on making informed recommendations about how these resources work, and how they might be strengthened in different ways. Each of the identified resources is distinct in terms of form, content, and medium. The students will treat the library staff as clients, and make formal presentations to them about how – as members of the Georgia Tech community – they understand the resources and how they might better connect for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff. They’re developing personae and researching similar offerings at different universities, and I look forward to their work. I also fully expect that they will profoundly alter the ways in which this project will manifest.

Friday I intend to do a feedback session to get an idea of how the project is progressing. Based on that feedback, I’ll tweak the assignment further in hopes of helping them submit successful proposals. I’ll get back to you on how that goes.

Works considered in writing this post (some of which are being used in class):

  • Cooper, Alan, Robert Reiman, and David Cronin. About Face 3.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007.
  • Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. New York: Penguin Books, 2012
  • Hodge, Robert and Gunther R. Kress. Social Semiotics. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity P, 1988. Print.
  • Kress, Gunther R. and Theo Van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
  • Tufte, Edward. Envisioning Information. 2nd ed. Graphics Press, 2005.

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