Promoting Linguistic Diversity in Community-Centered Multimodal Design


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How can language diversity be centered through multimodal design and community-centered technical communication work? And what can that look like in the semester-long space of the undergraduate course? These questions drive the development of a technical communication course design that works to position students as design advocates (a term inspired by Wysocki and Lynch’s Compose, Design, Advocate), who work to understand, analyze, and make positive interventions within writing situations in their own communities, and to increase representation and access in their genres. In doing so, design advocates are asked to engage their communicative resources in context-specific design practice. In this blog post, I explain the goals and design of this course, discuss the connections between language, design, and advocacy, highlight strategies for centering language in multimodal design conversations, and reflect on the successes, surprises, and shortcomings of the course design.

As several scholars have established, all language practice is multimodal (Horner, Selfe, and Lockridge; Kress; Shipka). However, as Laura Gonzales argues in Sites of Translation, pedagogies that  resist language/single modality approaches, deficit-based models, and the homogenization of language difference must not ignore the cultural-rhetorical contexts that inform and support these practices. As a white, cisgendered, able-bodied woman who brings to the classroom varieties of English and Spanish, I wanted to enact a pedagogy that resisted these same pedagogical pitfalls, especially since my course designs in the past have relied on such foundations. I knew I wanted students to design for a community in which they already participated, practice identifying and drawing on their communicative resources (in particular, they languages they brought to class), and practice locating, understanding, and working to resolve issues of access and representation within a particular genre. I drew on aspects of human-centered design theory and Rhetorical Genre Studies pedagogical approaches in order to build a foundation for discussions of language, social action, design, and multimodality that would extend throughout the course. Human-centered design and RGS, while very much their own distinct bodies of scholarship, both offer pedagogical approaches with a focus on language, design, social action, and larger connections to structures of power and control. As Emma Rose highlights, a human-centered design approach prompts us to ask both How is the world being designed, who is doing the designing, and what is the impact? and Who, either by intention or by design, is being left out?  (“Design as Advocacy”, p. 428). Likewise, in Scenes of Writing, Devitt, Reiff, and Bawarshi’s genre analysis heuristic asks not only What purposes does the genre fulfill for the people who use it?, but Who is invited into the genre, and who is excluded? A human-centered design approach provides actionable processes for identifying design issues and systematically working to solve them, while a RGS approach provides some of the connective tissue needed to talk about multimodality, genre, and language in relation to one another. As Horner, Selfe, and Lockridge argue, “it seems ultimately problematic to distinguish between language and modality” (Thinking about Multi (or Trans-) Modality, and Trans (or Multi-) Linguality). Rather. they are bound up in communicative acts, housed in social action specific social and cultural moments. Just as language and modality are interconnected, multimodality and design advocacy are bound up in one another and inform community-centered problem-solving: What is the best deliverable for this community in this particular place, at this particular time? What modes, mediums, and genres might enable more accessible engagement, participation, or action? How can we best advocate through design by attending to language-as-mode as part of these efforts?  A paired human-centered design and RGS approach, while not perfect, enabled our class to pursue and engage with these questions, thinking about multimodality and design-as-advocacy as conceptually and pragmatically linked.

The primary goals of this course were to promote design as advocacy, encourage students to “take inventory” of their communicative resources, engage in community-centered design projects, and to make connections between language, genre, and design. The beginning of the course consisted of foundational readings, discussion, and in-class design tool crash courses, before moving into the first unit project, technical description. As the course progressed into the next two units (instructions and small-scale usability testing), we practiced multimodal analysis and revision as a class, worked through invention, planning, and design tasks during class, and addressed challenges and “design roadblocks” as needed through impromptu problem-solving workshops. Since students, as design advocates, were engaging in critical thinking, designing, and writing for friends, family members, and fellow students, they were particularly attuned to which language varieties they could employ in order to best create multimodal designs that promoted access, increased representation, and supported and/or expanded available social actions. Students first decided on a community to connect with and inquire with about potential design needs, then located a design-related issue after meeting and communicating with community stakeholders, and then created a design proposal for their projects. Much of class time was devoted to working on their design proposals and developing their designs. We drew on Emma J. Rose et al.’s guiding study questions for locating design barriers (“Community-Based User Experience,” p. 218) in order to create our own frameworks for analysis, paying particular attention to language in enabling/foreclosing access and action. We also utilized Lucía Durá’s overview of asset-based inquiry practices in order to engage as design advocates who designed for and alongside communities, “amplifying local knowledge, cultural wealth, and strengths” (“Expanding Inventional and Solution Spaces”). We asked not only What does your community think? but also What does your community already know? How can you design in collaboration with the expertise of your community, including your own?  What language is needed here? Students developed new multimodal texts, revised and repurposed existing texts, and created “support” texts for genres that were beyond students’ intervention and engaged their and their community’s communicative resources in multiple ways: identifying design issues from community experience with particular genres, translating content into other languages, and translating complex information into accessible, understandable language, and in doing so, working across modes and contexts to make positive interventions within particular genres.

As a relatively new technical communication teacher, these forays into design-as-advocacy were exciting, especially since students were motivated and engaged with their community-centered designs. However, this course design was not without its share of surprises, shortcomings, and need for revisions. Overall, I found that students worked to engage their communicative resources in their designs, but it took time in class to talk about what that actually meant, what counted as a communicative resource. We returned to conversations about language and linguistic diversity throughout the course, but I know for many students it was challenging to locate what resources they brought to the course in the first place. Additionally, it became clear early on that I needed to further revise and expand the tentative, rolling deadlines I had established for the course—they simply didn’t account for different timelines needed for each design project. And finally, the assigning of particular genres (technical description and instructions) was limiting for some groups; the tension between class goals and community design needs did conflict and it became necessary to offer more options and project “routes.” As I continue revising the course for this upcoming summer, I’m still wrestling with several questions related to multimodality, design-as-advocacy, and centering language diversity in the technical communication classroom: What ways can I help students “take inventory” of their communicative resources that resists listing skills, practices, and mindsets as fixed, rather than situational, improvisational, and fluid? In what ways can our class discussions about language and multimodality resist tendencies to collapse language difference or overgeneralize about what it means to communicate and design for, and alongside, communities?

Works Cited

Gonzales, Laura. Sites of Translation: What Multilinguals Can Teach Us About Digital Writing and Rhetoric. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018.

Devitt, Amy J., Anis S. Bawarshi, and Mary Jo Reiff. Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres. London: Pearson Press, 2004.

Durá, Lucía. “Expanding Inventional and Solution Spaces: How Asset-Based Inquiry Can Support Advocacy in Technical Communication.” Citizenship and Advocacy in Technical Communication: Scholarly and Pedagogical Perspectives, edited by Godwin Y. Agboka and Natalia Matveeva, New York: Routledge Press, 2018.

Rose, Emma J. “Design as Advocacy: Using a Human-Centered Approach to Investigate the Needs of Vulnerable Populations.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, vol. 46, no. 4, 2016, pp. 427-445.

Rose, Emma J., Robert Racadio, Kalen Wong, Shally Nguyen, Jee Kim, and Abbie Zahler. “Community-Based User Experience: Evaluating the Usability of Health Insurance Information with Immigrant Patients.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, vol. 60, no. 2, 2017, pp. 214-231.

About Author

Dana Comi

Dana Comi is a third-year Ph.D student at the University of Kansas with research interests in Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS), technical communication, and public rhetorics.

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