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Teaching about Affordances and Constraints

posted: 2.25.14 by Traci Gardner

I’m prepping to talk with my Writing and Digital Media class about the affordances and constraints of the modes used in a text. Students have read the basic definitions and related case study in Writer/Designer by Kristin L. Arola, Cheryl E. Ball and Jennifer Sheppard, the textbook we are using, but we haven’t talked about or worked with the concepts in class.

We could work through another example case in class, but I would like to see students do a bit more thinking about the complex decisions designers make when they choose the modes they engage in a text. I want to push them to think about how to take full advantage of the affordances and, when possible, exploit the constraints, as they shape multimodal messages.

Last week, we did an in-depth rhetorical analysis of a flyer titled What is the English Undergraduate Research Conference? To promote this campus event, the organizers provided every teacher in the department with 20 copies of the flyer copied on to bright orange paper. Since I had the copies and needed to hand them out anyway, it seemed like a perfect target for their analysis. They identified the modes of communication the handout uses, its rhetorical situation, and the design choices (relying on details from Chapters 1 and 2 of Writer/Designer).

My plan is to use the same handout and ask students first to think about the affordances and constraints of choosing a piece of paper to communicate the information. After they identify affordances and constraints, I want them to brainstorm other design choices that could be executed with the same tools (orange paper and a black-toner copier). I especially want them to think of ways to push past the constraints as possible.

I’ll end the activity with a group project that asks them to rethink the choices for a section of the handout and reconceive how to present the information in a way that makes the best use of reasonable resources. I have some basic ground rules in mind:

  • The redesigned text must fit the same audience and purpose.
  • The design can use any format or genre, except the original choices. In other words, the design cannot be photocopied handouts on orange paper.
  • The best designs will use more than one mode of communication.
  • The design will work within reasonable financial constraints. Look for low or no cost options, but remember that time and expertise are costs too.

The groups will decide on a new presentation and think it through enough to describe it to the class. Some sketches or a storyboard would be nice if possible. To ensure they can share their rough versions, I will ask them to use their Google Drive accounts. Because of time constraints, they won’t create the new texts however.

I’ll ask them to present their ideas, explaining why they chose the modes they did and how they took advantage of the affordances and exploited the constraints at the end of the session. If time runs short, they can post their work in our class Google+ Community and we can do the presentations during the next session.

When they analyzed the text last week, they made some interesting observations about what worked and what didn’t. This week, they have the chance to make it better. Come back next week, and I’ll let you know how the activity worked and what they came up with.

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