The focus of Session E9 was to have been technologies with presentations on both the design of a tech-heavy writing course and the use of learning management systems. However, Michael McLeod and Dawn Opel, co-presenters of the panel titled Keeping Wonder in Check: Balancing the How of Digital Tools with the Why When Designing Technology-Heavy Writing Courses, had the session to themselves upon learning the other panelist would not be available to present on LMS. While McLeod and Opel opened their presentation with the expectation to take only part of the session’s time — thus enabling participants to attend the tale-end of other sessions or network with colleagues over coffee and snacks — the robust, lively discussion that followed their presentation took the entire allotted time. Their presentation was excellent and provided me a useful list of readings for both my profession as a web manager on a marketing team and my avocation as an adjunct instructor, but the discussion that followed their presentation is really the focus of my review.
McLeod led off the presentation describing the rationale behind developing the Michigan State University Writing, Rhetoric & American Studies (WRAC) department’s class on advanced web authoring, WRA 410. The course emerged in response to a 2012 C&W town hall, “Program or Be Programmed: Do We Need Computational Literacy in C&W?” [DRC review] in which Mark Sample and Annette Vee introduced the role of code in writing studies through pedagogy as well as research. McLeod positioned the curriculum balanced among Selber’s (2004) functional, critical, and rhetorical computer literacies. He then outlined how the course sequence and structure provided guidance on moving beyond the functional literacy of tool studies — the “I learned Dreamweaver” experience of web authoring — to critical and rhetorical literacies built around an object-oriented approach to content and authorship. Opel continued the presentation by describing adjustments to the course made after McLeod left MSU and Opel took over curriculum management. While functional literacies shifted as a result of advances in technology (like XHTML to HTML5 and CSS to CSS3), and project outcomes changed to take advantage of teachable, kairotic moments in America socio-political realities, the core critical and rhetorical literacies remained intact through the transition from McLeod to Opel. Their presentation successfully demonstrated ways to address critical and rhetorical literacies in an advanced course on web authoring that easily could have become a functional literacy course teaching advanced methods of using web authoring platforms and CMS like WordPress or Drupal.
Bill Hart-Davidson, among session attendees, at one point joked that the post-presentation discussion was almost a Michigan State department meeting, and there were moments when that seemed right on target. Because several attendees in addition to Hart-Davidson were MSU professors, the presentation and discussion that followed inevitably veered toward the politics of course catalog descriptions, course design and management, curricular sequence, and institution-specific outcomes. For non-MSU participants, the institution-specific direction the conversation sometimes took was not off-putting. Rather, it opened a fascinating window on the practical ways that curricular designs and sequences are negotiated among colleagues seeking to promote the common goal of lifelong rhetorical learning.
McLeod made overt the course’s goal to teach concepts, not tools, and to teach students to be lifelong learners: the focus of the Advanced Web Authoring course was “what’s behind the interface” rather than the interface or the tool itself. Deeply influenced by the rhetoric of objects and object-centered design (one of the required readings is Hart-Davidson’s “Shaping Texts That Transform: Toward a Rhetoric of Objects, Relationships, and Views”), the course was (and remains under Opel’s continued development) designed for students to focus on the rhetorical choices made throughout the process of composing on the web, from coding to structuring to displaying content. In the presentation and the discussion that followed, it became obvious that, even within their own department at MSU, explicit conversations about what it means to teach “what’s behind the interface” have not always happened. The post-presentation discussion veered at times toward a practical problem-solving session for MSU faculty that addressed the question of how the department could better plan and coordinate its focus on rhetorical design from beginning to advanced composition levels in the curriculum. This question is not unique to MSU, and that’s what made the conversation insightful and useful to all of the participants.
At the heart of questions discussed during Q&A was this issue: What’s rhetorical about technologies and technology-based design? And how do we successfully teach these technology-based practices as rhetorical rather than as hands-on coding or structuring without regard to the rhetorical activities these practices embed in their designs? The discussion didn’t fully answer the question for any in attendance, but the importance of the question, and its implications for rhetorical education in digital spaces, was not lost on the session’s attendees. What McLeod and Opel offered attendees was a forum where honest conversations about the complexities of departmental and institutional curriculum design, rhetorical education in digital spaces, critical thinking as student outcomes, and the cross-disciplinarity of rhetorical studies could be held outside the institutional structures that too often constrain such conversations in department meetings and faculty senates. For the time allotted for the session, we all enjoyed the opportunity to speak freely and candidly among like-minded colleagues about our common passions: rhetorical education in digital environments. Perhaps more importantly, participants left the session with practical ideas about course design, strategies for coordinating outcomes among successive courses in curricula, and methods for focusing students’ attention on the rhetoricity of design decisions in digital environments.