As a teacher of business writing, scientific and technical writing, and introductory composition courses, I see deep connections between the pedagogical worlds of professional writing and composing for college writing contexts. A primary thread between these worlds, for me, is the relationship between design and pedagogy articulated by the New London Group (“A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies”), who write that “learning and productivity are the results of the designs (the structures) of complex systems of people, environments, technology, beliefs, and texts” (73). With this definition in mind, design informs my teaching at three related levels: as a model for cultivating learning, as a way to conceive of writing and communication, and as my approach to the spatial aspects of the classrooms in which I teach.
My conception of learning and knowledge-making is informed by Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development”—a learner’s cognitive state when they are on the cusp of insight but require the guidance of an external agent to move to a higher order concept (Mind in Society)—and the related concept of scaffolding—a practice that builds upon and supplements students’ preexisting knowledge. I understand the construction of these scaffolds as a matter of design. For example, I introduce the concept of “genre” by playing various musical genres for my students and asking them to list the aspects that make them quickly and clearly identifiable as Hip-Hop or Punk. Then I present three or four examples of an unfamiliar writing genre, asking them to list the similarities between the documents—content, tone, audiences addressed, document design. Having done this, we discuss the examples to collaboratively develop an understanding of the formal aspects of their genres. This activity, while a relatively small example of my classroom practice, evinces my larger pedagogical motive of not only fostering students’ competence in particular writing scenarios but designing scaffolds that guide students toward a metacognitive ability to effectively learn particular genres, even if those genres are initially unfamiliar.
The metaphor of design doesn’t only inflect my understanding of learning, however. It also more specifically serves as a way of thinking about the composing process. While I explicitly integrate design thinking—an entrepreneurial philosophy and mode of creative problem solving—into my business writing courses, I ask all of my students to consider writing and communication as a mode of designing compositions that shape the world and accomplish social action. Part of this is helping students to understand the expectations of writing and the “commonplaces” of particular writing scenarios—a way of assessing the restrictions of “available designs.” At the same time, I encourage students to consider the need to engage processes of redesigning these commonplaces to meet particular writing contexts and to engage writing as a social act (NLG 1999). This pedagogical orientation draws attention to the ways that writing always intervenes, and it calls students to explicitly consider how they want to design the world.
My investment in the metaphor of design informs my consideration of the ways in which my students and I might redesign particular classroom spaces in efficacious and learning-oriented ways. The physical layouts of classrooms, for example, often restrict collaboration and participatory learning. One strategy I use for ameliorating this is “hacking” the classroom (Walls, Schopieray, and Devoss, 2009) or, to use my operative term, redesigning it. This redesigning incorporates both digital and analog technology. On any given day, my students might participate in the learning environment by back-channeling in my Google Slides (which they can access) and adding questions or pressing topics from the readings; by moving classroom furniture to huddle in small groups to discuss a digital or physical text; by filling out a Post-It note with key ideas from the readings, posting them on the board, and sorting the notes into relevant themes; or, redesigning their own space to foster their individual writing. I not only allow students to redesign their space but actively encourage it. I believe that seeing all spaces—textual, physical, digital, and cognitive—as open practices of design is crucial to efficacious writing pedagogy.
Finally, my teaching is design, a social action from and with which my students might gain a greater sense of themselves as writers, as composers, as designers of the worlds in which they participate.