Reflexive Interfaces & Hacking Space

Reflexive Interfaces

“But we will end with a question for the designers of interfaces, as well as for those who teach the designers of interfaces: Is it possible to design—is it worth pursuing the design of—reflexive interfaces, interfaces that themselves encourage the wider kinds of seeing we have discussed here, interfaces that encourage their audiences to question how the interfaces construct and shape those who engage with them?” Wysocki & Jasken, pg. 46

I believe that, ten years after Wysocki and Jasken published their article “What Should be an Unforgettable Face” in a 2004 issue Computers and Composition, there have been technological developments that have both resisted and embraced the concept of reflexive interfaces. WYSIWYG tools that allow users to create and edit web pages in HTML 5 is just one instance where, despite an incredible ease of use, constrains the creative and rhetorical possibilities that an interface could provide, limiting the way users see the rich, rhetorical elements that these interfaces are embedded with. An example of nterfaces that have embraced reflexivity are available open source. The phenomena of submitting pull requests and committing files on open source hosting services like GitHub is just one example of how users increasingly participate in shaping interfaces. This participatory element to shaping interface design is just one possibility for engagement, not just for seeing but, I think more importantly, for doing.

The concept of reflexive interfaces has personal implications for me as a teacher, student, and professional. As a teacher, I want students to employ web-based publishing tools that are not templates or WYSIWYGs – what Karl Stolley calls lo-fi technologies – in turn allowing them to produce sustainable and accessible interfaces. As a student, I seek to explore the production of these interfaces to experiment and test their capability, hopefully to inform the way I teach my students rhetoric as a method of orienting them to produce rich, reflexive interfaces.

The professional implications of this article are a bit difficult to extract, mainly because it is written from the cultural thrust of educating students how to design. Textbooks and handbooks are useful for learners outside the academy, hoping to improve their skills in designing interfaces, without the aid of a teacher who can help them see the rhetoricity of interfaces they create. Wysocki and Jasken, however, consider design handbooks to be too simplistic and arhetorical: “Do we want our interfaces to shape us as people who care only about getting things done quickly and easily? Or do we want interfaces to look at us as people who value generosity or patience or careful critical and interpretative thinking or…? (40)” These are absolutely questions worth thoughtful consideration, but as professional writers and designers are already constrained by time, resources, and the need for efficiency, shouldn’t there be a middle ground that can be met, one where efficiency meets critical thinking? I believe it is possible to meet at a middle ground.

Hacking Classroom Space

I enjoyed reading about spaces in Walls, Schopieray, DeVoss’ “Hacking Spaces: Place as Interface,” particularly the understanding of physical classroom space working in concert with software as “space.” This encouraged me to revisit a quote from 1971, long before computers would ever grace writing classrooms:

“The classroom as presently structured does not provide the environment in which anything creative can be taught. Physically, the room insists on order and authoritarianism, the enemies of creativity: the teacher as ultimate authority in front of the room and the students as passive receptacles at HIS feet. This unbridgeable gap (generation and otherwise) is physically emphasized.” William Lutz, in Making Freshman English as a Happening

Though I would like to state that our physical classroom spaces have evolved drastically since the early 1970s, they have not. Writing continues to be taught in buildings constructed from that era and even before, presenting (if we’re lucky) computer-equipped classroom layouts that replicate the design of typical classrooms from that era as well. I find the concept of hacktivism as empowering for me as an instructor. Inviting the question of physical space into the classroom is a helpful way to address physical space as essential to composing processes.

“All too often, the physical processes and considerations of writing are left unexplored in our classrooms. Where writers have to go to do their work, the technology they need to write, and the effects of such travels and needs are very rarely, if ever, discussed in academic settings. Foregrounding these issues places them in front of students and also allows students to consider the effects of space and technology on their own literacies and composing practices. This move can also lead to the sharing of resources and the establishing of problem-solving behaviors.” Walls, Schopieray, & DeVoss, 283

Hacking space, then, can take a number of forms for writing teachers:

  1. Explicitly addressing classroom space in pedagogy, such as through writing activities
  2. Collaborative writing where students utilize Google Docs and the physical space present for conversation
  3. Utilizing multiple forms of media for both instruction and in-class student work

These methods all present a number of affordances for teachers, all through explicitly addressing the constraints and possibilities of space. At the end of the article, the authors note the many implications of seeing physical spaces as interfaces (284). More research is needed to show the rich relationship between physical and software spaces for writing instruction, their constraints, and the little ways we can hack them, work around them, and even transform them for learning. Professionally, I am unsure how this research translates to workspaces, but there’s an enormous potential for studying the spaces (physical and virtual) that professional and technical writers navigate to do knowledge work. As this work often crosses both physical and geopolitical boundaries, more attention must be given to the cultures who best benefit from the design of physical and virtual spaces. I look forward to learning more about all the little ways (and sometimes big ways) that instructors are pushing back at the physical environments where they teach, in turn encouraging students to push back at the digital interfaces that are often constraining to creativity, critical thinking, and rhetorical possibilities.