Yesterday was one of those days.
New assignments are always a source of anxiety for me. The thrill of trying something untested is always undercut for me by the concern that the tasks or activity itself doesn't really meet the learning objectives for the course. Or that some unforeseen dynamic will derail the idea. And that anxiety is always compounded when you're trying to work outside your specific area of specialization.
I am not a design person. I love design, but it's not my wheelhouse professionally or personally. But Tuesday was Document Design day in Professional Report Writing.
So I had students break out into 4-5 groups of 3-4 people and assigned them a space on the whiteboards that line the walls on the west and north of the classroom. I drew three blank spaces, an enlarged rectangle to simulate an 8 1/2 x 11" sheet of paper, a 15.6 inch laptop screen, and a 6" smartphone screen. All enlarged to a scale roughly 4:1.
The exercise, I hoped, would get students thinking about what changes they can make to document's design. But I also wanted thinking about design in the context of two other interfaces that use the paper-document as a governing metaphor. This could challenge students to think more about the complexities of document design, the affordances available to them even on paper, that would aid them as they compose and write in professional settings.
Most of my students this semester are not going in to fields that will require much of them in terms of design. So it seemed to me that the fairly basic nature of the assignment was permissible. Though I am already thinking about how I might re-integrate this kind of work into next semester, earlier and in relation to larger assignments.
They did a good job, really embracing the task and thinking carefully about the design choices they had available to them. The "buzz" these kinds of assignments can create always warms my heart a bit. Overheard snippets of debate about design and composition choices provide ambient feedback about the pedagogical value of the assignment.
If we struggled with the assignment at any point, it was managing the time students had to produce the three documents, some choosing to bail after producing relatively simple design changes with others risking running out of time altogether, delving more deeply into the possibilities than the constraints allowed.
I also wrestled with what it was I wanted the practice of drawing the web-browser and smartphone designs to illuminate about drawing in a more traditional document format (even when electronically represented in PDF or Word document, the conventions created by "paper" still hold in most professional writing contexts).
While it can be unnerving, I sometimes try to make these uncertainties visible to my students, trusting that they can see things I can't. The discussion with my second section was more energetic and fruitful due entirely to improved management of the class time on my part (section one perennially struggles with having to be the guinea pig as I craft this particular course configuration for the first time).
Students seemed to think that designing briefly in the other two interfaces helped them think about content placement, balance, and headings more carefully. The hierarchy of information presentation is incredibly important on a smartphone, but recognizing this allowed us to think about how this is also true on a traditional document--in fact is just as important.
The exercise, again, while simple and certainly needs improvement, was interesting and exciting for both me and my students (for them, because perhaps it made the time go more quickly more than anything else :-). But more importantly it is something I can build on in how I think about instruction, in design and also tech comm/professional writing more generally. I'm also scheming how the assignment could be configured for online deployment.
If you have particular assignments you use in writing or design courses, new ones or ones you have been using for years, I'd love to hear about them!
*Figure 5-15 on p. 109 of the 3rd edition for those who use the text as well.