User experience (UX) focuses on creating a space or object that is designed to give the user the best experience possible. According to Usability.gov, UX “focuses on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and also their limitations” (“What and Why: User Experience”). In order to provide the best possible learning environment for our freshman-year composition courses, we have to focus on our students as our “users,” and the course as the “space” that needs to be customized to fit the student. This includes shifting the way we think about disabilities and accommodating those who have different needs than the “typical” student.
We see the need to shift from the principles of accommodation to the principles of universal design. According to Patricia A. Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers, universal design demands a commitment to making a space “usable for all people” ("Introduction"). Instead of creating a space for a specific group of people with specific needs and then retroactively changing something in order to accommodate a different group of people with different needs, universal design insists on creating a space that is designed to be accessible from the very beginning.
Patricia A. Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers further state that by adopting these principles of universal design in composition classrooms, we can create a course that is “more flexible, more inclusive, and more challenging” (“Introduction"). In order to create this inclusive, flexible environment with universal design, we have to reimagine the composition classroom. Instead of the traditional, text-only course as being the predominant, end-all, be-all of classroom design, we instead have to see it as disabled because it is not accessible for everyone. Specifically, not everyone learns best through writing various tests. Instead, Patricia A. Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers encourage composition instructors to create exercises and assignments that tap into people’s interests and talents through discussions, art, movement, and other ways of creating a composition ("Introduction"). We suggest play as a way to create this universally designed, flexible, accessible classroom.
Further, Patricia A. Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers state the following:
Before, during, and after we write, we need to generate ideas, and to select, analyze, and evaluate our own writing and that of others. Sometimes we need to respond to a text before writing about it formally. In addition to using written words as an invention tool for the many tasks involved in writing, we can also use sensory pathways and other representational systems to spark the intellectual play and growth involved in writing and revising: sketching, role-playing, talking, graphing, literally moving pieces of an argument around on a table, interviewing each other, etc. ("Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy").
In other words, Patricia A. Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers are suggesting composition instructors incorporate play into different phases of the writing process, such as the invention stage. They also talk about moving pieces of an argument around on a table, which would be a great exercise to incorporate into your composition course.
Activity: When the students are learning to write an argumentative paper, for example, you could provide different arguments to different groups and have them arrange the pieces of the arguments in a sensible manner. You could also give different groups the same argument and have them compare their arrangements with those of the other groups. It is a simple activity, but one that breaks up the monotony of a lecture.
Play can be incorporated in a variety of other ways. We have provided a few activities you can incorporate into your college composition classroom. We also did an in-class composition exercise during our Composition Theory class during the 2015 spring semester. For the activity, we each had to bring in a separate object for a peer to compose with. We traded items during class, and then had a certain amount of time to compose a narrative with the object. The activity was fun and got many of our classmates thinking about how flexible the composition process can be besides outlines and typed words on a page. The hands-on activity gave us relief from the stresses of college, was an activity that anyone could perform, and got us thinking about various ways we could use such an activity in our classrooms next year. Be sure to check out the other examples of activities available on this site (link to Kellie’s activities). Patricia A. Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers suggest sketching as an activity for the invention and revision processes of composition. Sketches can be used to visually represent arguments, connect ideas, or simplify complex information. The sketches could be simple graphs or elaborate drawings—students do not have to artistically—inclined in order to participate. They provide example sketches to conceptualize their ideas for a rhetorical analysis ("Sketching to Learn").
Cynthia L. Selfe and Franny Howes discuss the issue of the user experience and universal design in the composition classroom as well. They provide the following, eye-opening statement:
Re-thinking composition from a disability studies perspective reminds us that we too often design writing instruction for individuals who type on a keyboard and too easily forget those who use blow tubes, that we have a habit of creating assignments for those who read text with their eyes and a related habit of forgetting those who read through their fingertips, that we too often privilege students who speak up in class and too often forget those who participate most thoughtfully via email ("Over There: Disability Studies and Composition").
While I have not personally experienced the first two examples they mention, I have too often found the third example to be true. In composition studies, and college classrooms in general, in-class participation often holds a percentage of the course’s grade. Too often we forget that some people have social anxieties that prevent them from comfortably speaking up in front of others, such as their peers, or that some people simply need more time to gather and organize their thoughts. This missed opportunity to allow students to express themselves in their own way and time can be a major inhibitor in the classroom. Incorporating play in the classroom, however, allows more opportunities for these folks to work through their thought processes. Incorporating in-class activities that focus on play relieves some of the social pressure in the classroom, and collaborative play activities allow students to get to know one another without the pressure of needing to have the right answer.
By incorporating user experience principles and play in the course design, you will be less likely to have to revise the learning experience for your students. Usability.gov presents six criteria for information in order for that information to be valuable to users. The criteria call for information to be useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, and credible. While usability is often aimed solely at website design, it has broad applicability. Creating a course full of information that meets the above criteria allows for students to have a meaningful experience in your classroom.