Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Physical Mundane as Topos: Walking/Dwelling/Using as Rhetorical Invention

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Physical Mundane as Topos: Walking/Dwelling/Using as Rhetorical Invention

Article excerpt

In an effort to increase its undergraduate population by five thousand students, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), like many universities attempting to grow, has restructured its recruitment strategies and started reconstructing its physical campus. Both changes have had positive outcomes. UAB's student population is more diverse, and the students have access to more up-to-date instructional spaces. However, those positive outcomes have also produced unexpected and complicated challenges. Although many narratives uncritically assert the positives associated with growth, this article addresses the fact that an expanding university will almost always face its share of unforeseen complications. A growing university will, for example, usually need to determine what features of the original campus will remain and what features will be removed, remodeled, or added to the physical structures it supports. Even though the decision makers may claim the changes are in the best interests of the students, students themselves are sometimes left out of the planning process-especially students not affiliated with the university when it developed its growth plan. Borrowing from humanistic and rhetorically based theories of usability studies, this article offers an invention tactic students can use to become critically aware users of what is and is not included in a university's attempts to restructure its college campus. Ultimately, this article offers a usability and rhetorically based pedagogy I have used for the past four and a half years in a number of different writing courses designed to help students generate institutional critiques they can deploy within academic and public rhetorical situations.

Exploring physical spaces from a usability perspective may seem too technical or out of place for the composition classroom. However, Donald Norman's extensive discussion of doors and door knobs in The Design of Everyday Things demonstrates that most people habitually interact with a number of seemingly mundane technologies almost daily. And, in their 2005 CCC article, Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeffrey T. Grabill, by using Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder's definition of infrastructures to examine the support systems for multimodal text production, also demonstrate the wealth of rhetorical opportunities that examining the physical in localized contexts can produce. Additionally, over the last two decades many professional and technical communication scholars, such as Heather McGovern in her 2007 JTWC article and J. Blake Scott in his 2008 TCQ article, have attempted to expand the reach of usability studies outside typical technical communication contexts.1 In this article I expand on their work by illustrating how humanistic/rhetorically based theories of usability-those that are heavily dependent on issues of audience awareness and context analysis, and that place the needs of the users above the technology being studied-can help students in a composition course view the physical structures included in a college campus as a university-sponsored product. I also demonstrate how getting students to analyze those structures through the lens of "use" helps them understand the impact those structures can have on their overall education experiences.

As I later explain, encouraging students to analyze a college campus as a university-sponsored product offers opportunities for becoming situated within rhetorical discourse. Analyzing their encounters with a college campus affords students the opportunity to explore a very familiar (and "real," to use the words of my students) rhetorical situation. When included in classroom discussions, the shared physical Encouraging students to analyze a col- features of the college campus become, lege campus as a university-sponsored from an Aristotelian point of view, types product offers opportunities for becom- of argumentative topos similar to how ing situated within rhetorical discourse. …

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