Interactive Design Course Produces Two Student-led Startups

Students in Professional Writing are notorious for being innovative and creative thinkers. Although this might sound a bit biased coming from a Professional Writing student like myself, it’s true. Professional Writer’s are designers, writers, builders, and thinkers. We work for publishing companies, non-profits, local companies, and nationally known companies. We help design websites for startup companies and create a social media strategy for organizations around East Lansing. Some of us even create ideas for Smart Phone apps and more adept Learning Management websites.

Last fall, two teams were hard at work in Bill Hart-Davidson’s Interactive Design (WRA 482) class coming up with an idea to help students navigate MSU and learn more efficiently. The two teams, Team Routebook and Team Syllabot, came up with projects last semester and have continued progress on them throughout this semester.

Team Routebook

Team Routebook began development on a Smartphone application appropriately named, “Routebook.”

“[Routebook] allows a user to see all of his or her current, fastest available transportation options,” Jessie Whitmill said, one creator on the three person team.

Although the project isn’t a finished application available to the public quite yet, the team determined the functionality of the app in class. Team Routebook, which also consists of Stephanie Sundheimer and Amanda Michels, made mockups based on user research and testing. They figured out how the data would be displayed to the user and came up with other options for the app so it would be more than just a bus GPS tracker.

“I first had an idea for an application that would tell me where the bus was because I live in Lansing and if I missed [the bus] by even one or two minutes, I was often late to class,” Whitmill explained when asked how she came up with the idea for the application. “After [my team] started to flesh out more ideas, we realized the live bus GPS tracker could be just one feature of a much larger app.” (more…)

Part II: Dissertation Committees: Advice for Faculty

In part I of this two-part post, I explained the way our graduate program in R&W approaches the dissertation as a learning experience first and foremost, and as the beginning of a students’ research career (rather than the end of their graduate education). I also suggested that this meant that faculty should have a pedagogy for dissertation writing.

Approaching the dissertation experience this way puts some demands on faculty – and particularly on chairs of advisory committees – that I have rarely seen spelled out in explicit terms. I’ll offer a few below. They might be seen as a companion to Karl Stolley’s excellent advice to graduate students on the dissertation, pitched instead for my faculty colleagues. They might also be seen as contributions, a la Harris, that our field has to the evolution of graduate education in the Humanities, particularly, around the dissertation process.

For Faculty: Three Ways to Be a Good Dissertation Committee Member

1. Students will be making mistakes; help them learn from them

The Dissertation affords an opportunity to help students learn to become independent researchers and to lead research projects that involve others. As such, the committee’s orientation toward the project should be similar to any writing instructor’s orientation toward students’ composing process: help shape an interesting project, build in moments for formative feedback, intervene at moments where advice can make implicit strategies explicit, prevent catastrophy but know that dealing with failure is part of the learning process (and a big part of research).

2. Treat Early Drafts as Opportunities to See, Understand, & Advise Decision-Making

Dissertations have genre characteristics owing to the rhetorical situation – writing for the approval of a committee, for instance – and their size/scope that students will be confronting for the first time. The traditional way of helping students understand these genre features is to ask them to examine models. Sound familiar? The problem with this approach is that what become formal features in a finished text are not simply the result of following textual conventions. They are the result of making decisions about claims and evidence, about framing, about theoretical and methodological precedent. They are decisions that every dissertation writer faces in some form. But, by design, the precise circumstances each writer faces are distinct, reflecting a particular problem, a particular set of data or resources, and a particular time/place in which the inquiry unfolds. Committees need to help students make good decisions, not simply produce a recognizable dissertation. This may mean that you, the committee member, will see some ugly texts along the way. Drafts that don’t bear a resemblance to the finished, polished masterpiece we all hope results. Take these as opportunities to learn about and, if needed, intervene in the decision-making processes that accompany dissertation writing.

3. Ask the Hard Questions Now that You Expect Students Will Face Later

Dissertation committees act as a proxy for the broader field they represent. When you read and comment as a committee member, you should do so as a stand in for your colleagues whose work the dissertation interacts with, challenges, supports, etc. You help make the writers’ audience a little less distant, and a lot more available for consultation while the arguments and evidence are being assembled. You are upholding a standard, but it is not some abstract measure of quality. It is a living, evolving body of knowledge manifest in the published work of your discipline. When you offer comments to a dissertation writer, you speak for that discipline back to a future colleague who seeks to contribute knowledge but who is also still very much learning what the field, collectively, knows.

These three pieces of advice are just a start. And they echo familiar writing instruction themes: writing is a process, genres represent social activities and not merely textual forms, and knowing one’s audience is critical to making effective rhetorical decisions. But they are no less valuable as applied to advisory committee chairs or members. I would love to hear others’ thoughts and additions to this list.


On a Saturday in October, scholars from all across the region assembled in East Lansing to attend the second annual WIDE-EMU ’12 (un)conference, an institutionally collaborative gathering sponsored by MSU’s Writing in Digital Environments Research Center (WIDE) and Eastern Michigan University’s Written Communication Program.

WIDE-EMU came to be on a car ride home from CCCC Atlanta in 2011. Bill Hart-Davidson, Steven Krause, and Derek Mueller took note of the cluster of smart people in the region, as well as a lack of informal opportunities to gather and share ideas. The creators challenged themselves to use the available resources at their institutions (EMU and MSU) to hold this gathering to foster the relationships and ideas of the rhetoric and writing scholars in the region.

From this emerged the foundational DIY ethic of the unconference, which is manifested as a conference with no registration free (*jaw on floor*); rather, attendees are asked to print their own schedule and program or download it to their laptops, tablets, or smartphones, as well as printing or making their own name tags, or reusing one from a previous conference. Another cool manifestation of this DIY ethic is as simple and attentive as providing a space on the conference website for attendees to communicate about room and couch sharing.

The entirety of WIDE-EMU is organized in three phases: Phase 1 is to propose; Phase 2 to respond, or to share an expansion of the proposal in the form of a blog post, slidedeck, video, podcast, etc.; and Phase 3 is the conference.

This year, in addition to folks from Michigan State and Eastern Michigan, participants came from the University of Michigan, Purdue, Bowling Green, Wayne State, Illinois Institute of Technology, Oakland University, Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, Illinois State, Eastern Kentucky, University of Detroit Mercy, and Saginaw Valley. The #wideemu hashtag was ablaze that Saturday. Check out this Storify slideshow of the 250+ tweets from the day of the conference.


WRAC Faculty Co-Found Technology Company

WRAC faculty members Jeff Grabill, Bill Hart-Davidson, and Mike McLeod helped launch a new educational technology company in September. The company, called Drawbridge, will commercialize ideas developed at the Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center as well as invent new technologies.The first product is called Eli, a web service that improves writing by helping teachers and students quickly conduct reviews, see and assess feedback, and learn from the revision process.  Eli is designed for use in K-12 schools, colleges and in professional or continuing adult education.”Like any good company, Drawbridge is built on a societal need, such as the need to improve writing skills,” said MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “Writing is identified in most every employment circumstance as one of the biggest challenges, particularly as students are becoming more oriented toward the language of hand-held devices.”A powerful and interactive web service built to streamline the revision process for students and teachers, Eli has a simple yet highly relevant goal: to help students become better writers.

A little over a year ago, we showcased Eli and its newly-minted documentation. Eli has recently passed another milestone. Eli is now available commercially and is being used locally at Michigan State University and Okemos High School and at a number of other sites around the country.

The creation of Eli has been a long and challenging process. “It was a discovery but it was also an intense collaboration; each of us brought unique contributions to the table and we all have traces of our identity in the product,” said McLeod. Commercialization was necessary, says Hart-Davidson, “to ensure that a stream of resources will exist to support it as the user base grows.”

Beyond helping writing instructors teach and students write, Andrew Henry, CEO of Red Cedar Solutions and Drawbridge, says that Eli’s commercialization shows MSU’s commitment to growing Michigan’s economy. The software is getting excellent reviews from new customers. But perhaps more importantly, this innovation is a coup for the WRAC department. Grabill said,”Outcomes such as this can happen more often: the arts and humanities are sources of creativity and innovation that are valuable.”

R&W Doctoral Alum Awarded Research Fulbright

Dr. Jim Ridolfo, R&W 2009 alumni and current assistant professor of composition and rhetoric at the University of Cincinnati, was recently awarded a 2011-2012 Middle East and North Africa Regional Research Fulbright. Ridolfo was only one of two scholars to receive the award last year.

Photo courtesy of Jim Ridolfo

He will spend six months (February – August 2012) in the West Bank and Israel working on his project entitled, “Letting Go of the Text: Changing Samaritan Attitudes Toward the Circulation of their Pentateuch.” 

Ridolfo has been researching and composing a digital archive for the Samaritan community since 2007, for which he earned funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities with PW and R&W associate professor William Hart-Davidson in 2008.

During his travels, Ridolfo plans to research, explore, and learn more about the circulation of Samaritan manuscripts. He plans to conduct archival research in the National Library in Jerusalem and the A.B. Samaritan Institute in Holon, as well as gather oral histories with members of the Samaritan community.

Click the following links for more information involving Ridolfo’s research and specific Fulbright scholarship.

R&W @ CCCC: Alumni Celebration!

This year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (a.k.a. CCCC), is set to take place April 6-9 in Atlanta, Georgia. CCCC is an annual conference that hosts hundreds of faculty, staff, and graduate students in writing-related programs and fields.

“The CCCC Reception has a few different purposes,” said Writing & Rhetoric Program director Bill Hart-Davidson. “Traditionally, it’s a grad program-sponsored event in conjunction with CCCC. This year is particularly special because one of our faculty members–Malea Powell–is the chair of the conference.”

You can read more about Malea Powell’s appointment as chair in former WRAC intern Ali White’s posts: The CCCC: Malea Powell Brings Big Changes as Program Chair and CCCC: Creating the Schedule.

Hart-Davidson said the reception acts as a reunion event. “It’s a convenient opportunity. All of our people are there, all of our prospective grad students and alums are there.”

This year, the Rhetoric & Writing Program is working with members of the CAL Dean’s Alumni Relations team, which is helping to sponsor the event. This means that the reception will also include any alumni from the College of Arts and Letters who are also attending the conference or happen to reside in the Atlanta area.

“While they might not have been part of the WRAC Department, the other CAL alumni still have a lot in common, and this reception gives them a chance to mingle and talk about the different things they’re working on. It’s also an excellent opportunity to network and recruit grad students,” Hart-Davidson said. “Other universities have similar events during CCCC. This allows us to get the WRAC name out there and to let other grad programs know what our students are doing.”

The Michigan State Rhetoric & Writing Reception will be held on Wednesday April 6th, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM at Max Lager’s Wood-fired Grill and Brewery.

R&W Graduate Program Recruits New PHD Students

During the last week of February, the R&W Graduate program invites potential PHD students to visit MSU. The recruitment mixer is held every year, part of a two-day event at which students admitted to the Rhetoric and Writing graduate program are invited to visit Michigan State University to meet faculty and students. On February 25, this year’s recruits attended a mixer held at Beggar’s Banquet, in downtown East Lansing.

There were seven (of eight total) recruits at Beggar’s, some flown in from as far as the Virgin Islands, others from Lansing, and some already in the MA program here at MSU.

The recruitment process is a very important one. While trying to attract the best students in the country, the graduate program is also competing with other universities across the country. Explaining the importance of the annual recruitment event, Professor and R&W program director Bill Hart-Davidson says:

“Building knowledge is only part of the reason you come to graduate school. Building professional relationships that will launch and sustain an academic career is another important reason. And peer relationships are extremely important. At the PHD level, your classmates are your future colleagues. If your goal is to be prepared to be a leader in the discipline, you want to learn in an environment where every other student is as engaged as you are, even if your research interests differ from those of others. We offer students a chance to see what they will be doing, where they will be doing it, and most importantly who they will be doing it with when they choose to study at Michigan State.”

At the recruitment mixer, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. “Everyone is smiling,” said recruit Jeffrey Guiste, flown in from the Virgin Islands, “which is a good sign.”

Both Jeffrey and Doug Schraufnagle, another recruit, said that they received more information than they ever thought they would. “It’s a full two days of appointments, meetings with faculty and students, and of course lots of good snacks!” said Hart-Davidson.

This year’s event is already paying off. Two of the PHD students have confirmed that they will attend in the fall. Hart-Davidson expects that three or four more will make up the full cohort, but this will be still less than ten percent of the total number who apply each year. “It’s definitely competitive,” says Hart-Davidson, “but that also means that we have the most talented students in the country coming to study in WRAC and at MSU.”

Not Just Another App in the App Store

Bill Hart-Davidson’s WRA 482 Information & Interaction Design students recently completed presentations on the mobile apps they designed for a project in the course. Mobile apps are the types of programs you might find and download onto a smart phone or iPad. There are apps that can scan bar codes and compare prices for you, apps that let you play games, recipe book apps, reference book apps, and a plethora of other practical and amusing apps to download.

Hart-Davidson tasked his students with designing a mobile app of their own because it aligned well with the goals of the course, which included introducing grad students and Professional Writing students to the kinds of roles they may want to play in the world of software development. Hart-Davidson said the mobile app assignment “challenges [students] to advance knowledge and build skills in creating a design deliverable, giving persuasive presentations, working as part of a team, working with new research techniques, and using design tools for prototyping and mocking up designs.”  This semester, the course had a special focus on social justice and social media. Hart-Davidson asked students to consider a design challenge that would promote positive social change, saying “we wanted to do more than just create another throwaway application in an app store.”

Hart-Davidson couldn’t have been more pleased with what his students came up with: “I think we are in a particularly opportune moment right now, because the students are coming in aware of the growing market for smart-phone mobile applications.” He said, “There is a credible path to a real market for what they are creating in this class, and the barrier between ‘class project’ and ‘real world product’ does not seem as high as it once was.” The barrier was so low in fact, that Hart-Davidson brought in experts from outside the course to sit in as a panel for the students’ presentations. “All of our panelists agreed that the designs were potentially viable in the market place,” Hart-Davidson said. “Many in fact, said that if the services designed by the students in WRA 482 existed today, they would use them. That was exciting!”

The class was divided into three groups; each group created their own mobile app.

Courtney Griffin, Josh Compton, and Felicia Berryman titled their app Automindr. It is a service designed to help novice auto owners learn good maintenance habits by connecting with experts as well as service professionals in their area. Users of the application can set reminders for routine auto maintenance, and location-based prompts allow the app to interact with users in a minimally obtrusive way to build good maintenance habits. Josh Compton said, “I got the idea for the app one day when I was driving and noticed the oil change sticker on my car only said a date, not a mileage. It got me thinking about how they calculate that number.” As the group continued their research by observing people interact with their car and asking them questions about their car maintenance habits. They found out that a lot of people feel like they don’t know enough about taking care of their car. Compton said, “[The idea for the mobile app] kind of expanded into a comprhensive way of teaching someone how to maintain their car better.” Felicia Berryman said, “I think the biggest thing I learned was to understand object-orientated design much better. For example, the dashboard information in a car at first seemed to be an object people interacted with. However, the car was the real object and the dashboard was data about that object. After grasping that, my team was able to really design around cars (one object), people (another object), and the maintenance reminder system (a third object).” Berryman said she also learned a lot about techniques to use when presenting to marketers.

Donnie Sackey, Noah Ullman, and Sean Thomas created Baked Potato. Their application is meant to transform the food buying experience by allowing shoppers to set goals such as “eating healthy.” The service helps users monitor progress toward their goals by providing supplemental product information at the point of purchase, after a shopping trip, and over time. You can see the project website here.

Aaron Soutar, Ryan Beatty, and James Jackson’s app is called Cartografr. It is aimed at increasing access to National and State Parks & Wilderness areas by lowering informational barriers to accessing and using park features such as trails and campsites. This service allows users to plan trips and to review park features.

Several of the teams are pursuing additional funding and support to move these projects from a classroom idea to reality.