Intervention by Design: Helping Students Build Agency within the Designed Interfaces of Web 2.0
Contributor: Katherine Bridgman
Affiliation: Texas A&M University - San Antonio
Email: Katherine.Bridgman at tamusa.tamus.edu
Released: 31 March 2016
Published: Fall 2016 (Issue 21.1)
The assignment discussed in this webtext grew from the question: How can we encourage students to compose as agentive and embodied authors within designed digital interfaces? This question emerges from a broader concern about the perceived loss of students’ authorial agency as we incorporate an increasing number of digital interfaces into our classrooms. For example, Kristin Arola (2010) addressed this troubling “loss of design agency witnessed” (p. 7) as many digital platforms remove “the purposeful choice and arrangement of page elements” from users (p. 6). Without the ability to make design choices within these digital interfaces, users have “little control over a large part of [their] representation” and lose the opportunity to “think through the ways in which design functions to make meaning and produce selves” as users have limited choices “about the composition of a page or screen” (p. 6). Melanie Yergeau (2013) echoed this when she wrote in the context of disability studies that “design is a relational infrastructure, an act of embodiment and reclamation.” The assignment sequence discussed here invites students to think about how interface design shapes composing processes and how authors function as embodied agents working within these deigns to craft messages for their intended audiences.
Before we introduce assignments into our classrooms that aim to recuperate student agency within digital interfaces, we must ask ourselves what this embodied authorial agency looks like as students compose digital texts both in and outside of our classrooms. One way to approach this embodied agency is to reflect on what Ben McCorkle (2012) described as the “thin chrome line, the literal contact zone between the human body and the personal computer” that runs through many of our classrooms (p. 174). When we think of interfaces as static, agency-depleting structures that exist only through their designed manifestations, this boundary between our technologies and our bodies becomes thick and rigid, ostensibly forming where our bodies end and our computers begin. However, in order to understand the agentive role of composers within the interface—and thus help shape our students’ presence within these spaces—we must look beyond the clicking of our fingers against a keyboard to see how the demarcations between human bodies and the computing machines they work with “become blurred and indistinguishable, or will even disappear altogether” (p. 174). It is in this blurriness that students craft texts and messages for audiences. One way that we can help students regain the agency that Arola (2010) suggests is lost across the interface is to help them critically recognize (a) interfaces as more than static designs and (b) their embodied presence within these interfaces.
This webtext explores a sequence of assignments designed to draw students’ awareness to this dynamic interaction between text and interface and to their embodiments as authors across the interface. I open with a brief overview of the course in which this assignment was originally given, an upper-level writing course titled Writing and Editing in Print and Online. The iteration of this course that is discussed here was designed to engage students in these discussions of interface design and authorial agency through their production of texts across a variety of interfaces both print and digital. Next, I turn to look at a classroom assignment that asked students to work in groups to create transmedia public service announcement (PSA) campaigns.
I will focus on the work produced by a group of four students in the course whose public service campaign was titled Campus RAK (Random Acts of Kindness) and sought to both make visible the random acts of kindness that were happening around them everyday and encourage other students on campus to engage in similar acts of kindness. As this group worked through the assignment sequence I outline below, we see how they were able to (a) critically recognize the interfaces they were working across, (b) see themselves as an embodied part of these interfaces, and (c) act with an awareness of how these digital interfaces connected them to social concerns extending beyond their most immediate context as students at the university.
The Course: Writing and Editing in Print and Online
ENC 3416 (Writing and Editing in Print and Online, or WEPO), a required course in the Editing, Writing, and Media track of the English major at Florida State University, emphasizes students' transition from theory to practice. One facet of this transition that was emphasized in the iteration of the course discussed here was students’ movement from a theoretical understanding of interface design and embodied authorship to a practical knowledge of what this looked like in practice as they composed for public audiences across a variety of interfaces during the course of the semester. This goal was one of several within a course that aims more generally to help students develop sound principles of editing and writing in print and online.
At the beginning of the course, students were asked to brainstorm potential PSA campaigns that they were interested in. Based on their interests, they were assigned to groups of four that would complete a sequence of four major assignments throughout the semester. Each group began by creating a Twitter account for their campaigns. They were required to post 14 tweets each week for 15 weeks of the semester. Next, each group broke into two groups to create a total of two remix videos for the PSA that could be circulated through either YouTube or Vimeo. The third major project was completed individually as students identified unique arguments in support of the PSA and targeted potential news outlets where these arguments could be published as op-eds. Finally, each group divided into two groups again to produce print posters that would be hung up around our campus. This sequence of projects culminated with a collaborative eportfolio that was created by each group and a theory of text production that each student wrote independently. (Click here for an overview of the course sequence.)
Student Work: (Re)claiming Agency as Composers across Digital Interfaces
This course took a threefold approach to students’ embodied agency across digital interfaces.
1: Facilitating student recognition of the interface
The first step this course took in the process of raising students’ awareness of their embodied agency across designed digital interfaces was to facilitate their critical awareness of the interfaces they were working with. This awareness focused on how interface design shapes and reshapes both the texts circulated across these platforms and the processes engaged to create these texts. Anne Francis Wysocki and Julia Jasken (2013) reiterated the importance of this awareness among our students when they wrote, “The history of interface development has led to a limited focus on the surface of the computer screen, and has asked us not to see how the design of what is on the screen shapes the actions and thinking we can do while engaged with interfaces” (p. 29). As teachers of critical composition practices across digital interfaces, it is incumbent on us to help students resist this lack of awareness. Interfaces are designed to be seen forgetfully, and, if our students are to resist this forgetfulness, they must first learn to re-see these interfaces before composing across them.
One way this course prompted students to recognize the role of the interface in their composing was through an assignment sequence that asked them to circulate similar messages across a variety of interfaces that were both digital and nondigital. Students’ critical recognition of the interfaces across which they were composing enabled them to create texts that were responsive to both their audiences and the interfaces across which they were communicating with these audiences. One way we see this happening in the RAK group is through their reflections on how sound is remediated across different interfaces. For example, as this group reflected at the end of the semester on the texts they created using Twitter, they commented on how they connected Twitter’s design to familiar speech patterns among college students. One group member wrote, “We chose ‘CampusRAK’ because our public service announcement (PSA) is geared towards college students on our campus and RAK is an easier and quicker way of saying ‘random acts of kindness.’”
A similar concern with the remediation of sound across digital interfaces surfaced through the connections this group made between their PSA campaign and the viral YouTube video “The Fox,” a music video originally created as a joke by Norwegian comedy brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker. This group used one of their print posters to expand the sounds made by the fox to include “RAK, RAK, RAK.” In her reflection on the production of this poster, one group member commented:
- We realized that if you write RAK many times it looks and sounds similar to the gibberish lyrics in 'What Does the Fox Say?' It would make people sing the song in their heads and remember the poster if we aligned our campaign with a memorable and catchy song, so we chose the song as our theme for the poster.
Both of these examples illustrate how this group began to develop an awareness that enabled them to think critically about not only the relationships between their message and their audiences, but also the relationships between their message and the interfaces across which it was circulated.
2: Teaching students to see themselves as part of the interface
The second facet of this approach to raising students’ awareness of their embodied agency across digital interfaces highlighted the ways in which, through practice, authors become part of the interface itself. As students began to recognize interfaces as critical elements of their digital texts, so too did this assignment sequence aim to help students become aware of the blurred boundary between their physical bodies and the interfaces they were working with. Students’ awareness of this dissolving boundary between body and interface was key in their developing critical awareness as composers in both print and online spaces. Johanna Drucker (2013) described this facet of digital interfaces as their “gooeyness” when she wrote that when we think of interfaces, we are often thinking of the screen as a "portal into the online world or computer. The GUI (Graphical User Interface), with its menu bars and navigational buttons, is so familiar that we tend to overlook the “gooeyness” of it—the mutable, mediating activity—and take the interface for a thing, static, stable, and fixed. Or we take it as a representation of computational processes, a convenient translation of what is ‘really going on’ inside. Neither could be further from actuality" (p. 213). Instead, as we compose across interfaces, these interfaces become gooey, fluid with the embodied presence of composers such as our students. As we compose, we become part of that interface. As my hands type across my keyboard and yours do the same, we become part of this interface together—shaping its capacities as we embody it.
The PSA assignment highlighted this mutability of the interface for students as many of their PSAs were prompting audiences to engage in actions that were simultaneously taking place online and offline. For example, the RAK group used their digital texts to ask audiences to engage in random acts of kindness around campus. Then, they asked these audience members to return to the digital interface and share these random acts of kindness by tweeting about them along with the hashtag. Ultimately, this cycle of physical action and digital testimony would encourage others to do more random acts of kindness and share their acts across Twitter a well. As the embodied physical actions of both the members of the PSA group and their audiences were carried across the mutable boundary of the interface, users’ bodies working across the interface became key to the circulation of their message and the visibility of their campaign on the campus. The image below shows a tweet from @CampusRak that seeks to initiate this movement of bodies across the porous boundary of Twitter’s interface.
Members of this group also demonstrated their emerging critical engagement with the rapport between bodies and interfaces as they modeled random acts of kindness for their audiences and remediated these acts across the digital interface. While one approach to this remediation was simply writing about a random act of kindness, a second tactic adopted by this group was much more visual. For example, this group posted dollar bills around campus with notes to the finder and tweeted images of these dollar bills with messages encouraging their readers to do the same. Thus, at the same time members of this group were asking their audiences to move back and forth between the digital and the physical by doing random acts of kindness and then tweeting about them, so too were they engaging this behavior as they carried out their PSA campaign both online and offline.
3: Building student awareness of the ideological borderlands they encounter as a result of their work across the interface
A third facet of this course’s approach to helping students see themselves as embodied agents composing across digital interfaces reveals what is at stake as students work across these cultural spaces that are never far removed from the issues and concerns that shape their lives offline. By introducing students to these interfaces within our classrooms, we are also introducing students to broader ideological borderlands that come to surround their texts. Reflecting on how “formations of social power” that are normally hidden can often be laid open across some of the same borders that wind their way through our classrooms, Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe (2012) wrote, “One place in which such borders remain quite visible, we realized, is in the computers that we, and many other teachers of English, use within classrooms” (p. 481). They went on to comment:
- We began to see how teachers of English who use computers are often involved in establishing and maintaining borders themselves—whether or not they acknowledge or support such a project—and, thus, in contributing to a larger cultural system of differential power that has resulted in the systematic domination and marginalization of certain groups of students, including among them: women, non-whites, and individuals who speak languages other than English.
As our students are encouraged to expand their agency through embodied composing practices across digital interfaces, they are invited to reflect on the structures of power that are also present through these interfaces and how their embodied composing practices can intervene in these structures of power.
One of the YouTube videos created by the RAK group illustrates how this group not only saw their ability to intervene in these structures of power, but also how they also encouraged their audiences to do the same. While the video emphasizes how everyone can have a rotten day, this group subtly acknowledges the underlying structures of power that often shape the rotten day of a college student. As the video starts, we hear the narrator say, “Do you ever have those days where the world seems to be against you?” Although the video does not go on to detail on the specific elements of the “cultural system of differential power” that surrounded them, it represents the plethora of reasons why students have bad days through the image of a big rain cloud and suggests that everyone shares the experience of a rough day: “Maybe all of those things haven’t happened to you. But, you know the feeling. […] If you look closely, you’ll see that everyone has struggles to face everyday whether big or small.” Toward the end of the video, the authors shift from explaining the exigence for random acts of kindness to highlighting the agency that their audience has to intervene in the causes of these cloudy, rotten days in a system that marginalizes some more than others. This transition occurs in the film when the narrator says, “So what can you do to clear the storm clouds on your campus?” At this point, the tone of the video shifts, and upbeat music starts playing in the background as audiences see illustrations of what some of these random acts of kindness might look like. Notably, one of these suggested random acts of kindness is that a student pay for the person in front of her in line at the coffee shop. We hear the narrator’s voice again as she reminds us, “You can turn someone’s whole day around, including your own, with a simple act of kindness. Just one random act of kindness can inspire infinite more. It’s a chain reaction.”
Although these students are not explicitly mentioning the “larger cultural system of differential power” that Selfe and Selfe discussed, they do seem to implicitly acknowledge the ways in which their work across these digital interfaces has the potential to intervene in these systems of power. We see this awareness in the reflection of one student in this group when she writes the following:
- Our video was designed to be a “call-to-action” for college students everywhere. More specifically it was aimed for students who frequent college campuses. In the video we at first appeal to everyone’s universal experience of having bad days and then suggest that many more people have frustrating, stressful days, too. By showing our audience how we are all connected, we hope that they take the second half of our video where we challenge them to perform a random act of kindness and then tweet them to @CampusRAK more seriously. If our video is able to inspire other students, it will have served its purpose.
While this YouTube video implicitly addresses the ideological borderlands opened up by digital interfaces in more general terms, this group also addressed several specific facets of the inequalities that existed on and around their campus through their tweets. For example, in the tweets below, we see how members of this group saw their work across Twitter connecting with some local issues that frequently went underacknowledged on the campus in public forums. In particular, @CampusRAK points out the difficulties faced by students in financial need on college campuses. They also gesture to what is frequently described as the “town and gown divide” that surrounds many urban campuses. In particular, many students on this campus were aware of a homeless shelter located across the street from a main section of the campus. Although their suggestion below that readers “buy a homeless person some hot chocolate” poses some potential problems, it also signals their awareness of how these interfaces connected them to broader issues in the world and provided a forum in which to address issues of power inequality and marginalization.
As students reflected on the course and wrote individual theories of text production, I saw glimpses of the RAK group’s shifting awareness of their composing as embodied and agentive across a variety of interfaces. Although they hesitated to replicate the language of their readings and class discussions, we see an emerging awareness that neither their texts, the digital interfaces across which they composed, nor the bodies they used to do so were isolated, static structures. One way that I suggest we begin to see students engaging with these issues of interface, agency, and embodiment is through their expanding understanding of what makes a text. For example, in her theory of text production, one student in the RAK PSA group wrote:
- The first part of my theory is that text can be produced in a variety of ways that go beyond just words on paper. While the construction of a paragraph is an effective way to express an idea, it may not be the most effective depending on the audience that is being targeted. Therefore, knowledge of different mediums such as videos, posters, and social media is crucial for relaying information to different audiences.
Later in this student’s theory of text production, she referenced Anne Cranny-Francis's definition of multimedia as a “cartography of contemporary meaning making” (qtd in Murray, 2014, p. 325). The student then thinks about the relationship of this definition to her own composing process writing: “There is no better, or worse, medium, and more than one medium can be used to relay a message.” Later, she writes, “As a student in this class, producing media materials with visuals and designs was just as challenging as producing text because every picture, phrase, bolded word, and even unsaid and unmentioned words or ideas, had to be carefully thought out.” Across these excerpts of this student’s theory of text production we see a bourgeoning awareness of the ways in which texts are multilayered phenomena that are limited neither to the edges of a page nor the frame of a screen.
Although students were hesitant to explicitly discuss their embodiment within the interface, many of them addressed their authorial embodiment through discussions of their collaboration as they composed these texts. For example, one member of the RAK PSA group describes how she and her other group members collaborated on their Twitter account:
- We first had to begin by creating a page. This was fairly easy since we had all had previous experience with Twitter. We all got together to create the design of the page and decide on the name. ... As far as the tweets, we all tweeted four tweets a week. We tried to switch them up as much as possible so the tweets were a variety of words of encouragement, a picture promoting RAK’s, an article about RAK’s, and even our own projects we did in class that had to do with our PSA. We all had the same roles and divided the work up evenly, which allowed us to collaborate well since we knew what each other was doing.
This group’s collaboration, and the difficulties that came along with it, unexpectedly helped to highlight for students just how embodied our composing processes are across digital interfaces such as Twitter’s. Forced to work through these processes collaboratively, otherwise obscured embodied processes came to light as students struggled to coordinate with the embodied processes of their classmates.
Finally, while many of our students are adept users of digital interfaces, my experience with these students underscores the powerful ways of seeing that are encouraged by interfaces that are designed to become invisible, fostering the immediacy that Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (1999) wrote about nearly 15 years ago. This immediacy elides the powerful role that interfaces play in shaping not only the texts we create, but also the bodies that are working through these texts. As assignments such as this one continue to prompt students to see with a critical awareness of the interface, we must be cautious that our explorations of media do not elide the variety of bodily experiences that emerge in relation to these interfaces. As David Rieder (2013) pointed out, “Today, computing environments are increasingly immersive experiences in which it is difficult to distinguish between a user and a system, which means that the ways in which we achieve a critical and reflective stance is changing.” Thus, at the same time that we want our students to be asking questions of the interface’s influence on audiences and messages, so too should we be prompting our students to ask questions about what bodies are included or excluded from these interfaces and how our texts become complicit in this inclusion and exclusion.
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