Students respond to an unusual English course

etsy binary clock kit
The UWaterloo Arts Online magazine has published an article on English 408C, The Rhetoric of Digital Design, featuring interviews with students–some of whom definitely panicked when they saw the syllabus! Read on to hear what they have to say.–JLH

English 408C, The Rhetoric of Digital Design

The University of Waterloo is known for its innovation. But, when a group Arts students sat down for their first lecture in the English course The Rhetoric of Digital Design, the last thing they expected to hear was that they’d be building, coding, and using microcontrollers to create an ‘object to think with.’

Maker culture is a trend that is exploding into the mainstream with maker faires, spaces, and workshops. It’s also at the heart of this 400-level course. A maker is described as someone who makes or produces something and maker culture is an extension of the DIY phenomenon with a particular focus on technology.

Course professor Marcel O’Gorman takes a unique, experiential approach to academics, working heavily with the UW English Department’s graduate program in Experiential Digital Media. Along with Dr. O’Gorman (or Marcel as he prefers his students to call him), students work with Dr. Nicholas Balasis, a postdoctoral fellow with the Critical Media Lab – an area focused on research in the digital realm and how technology impacts the human condition.

When I first started this course I wasn’t sure it was for me. I was confused about how it related to digital design and I was expecting to use design software like Adobe Creative Suite, which wasn’t the case at all. This class has become much more challenging than I had ever expected, in a good way! Getting hands on and learning through experiences and processes has always been what makes learning fun and engaging for me.  – Victoria, 4A, Speech Communication

While the course may not have been exactly what students were expecting when they arrived in the classroom on that first day, most agree that while unexpected, the challenges and critical thinking components are what make the class unique. The course focuses on digital design in a much broader sense than the course description would suggest. Students are asked to use an Arduino microcontroller (a tiny computer often used in DIY projects) and various DIY websites to make an electronic device. Then, students are asked to transform the device, using the course readings as a guide to bring conversation to the devices they created, while blogging about their experiences along the way.

I remember reading the syllabus and getting this instant feeling of “how am I going to pull this off?” I’m not a blogger – I’ve tried four times to start my own blog and it’s never worked out! I definitely don’t know how to code and I’ve never touched any hardware materials in my life. Right off the bat, I genuinely felt challenged and, because I decided to take on the challenge, I’ve learned a lot about myself and gained some cool skills along the way. – Chinye, 4A, English Rhetoric and Professional Writing

 Theory and history come into play as well. Students read and discuss topics surrounding maker culture dating back to the Industrial Revolution and apply these topics to their design projects, while challenging what it truly means to be a maker or designer.

I think the biggest take away for me is that we, as Arts students, can “play” with technology in a more active way, as opposed to being a passive user, and really be able to engage with technology in a way that we are unable to in other courses. – Airlie, Rhetoric and Communication Design, Graduate Student

To learn more about the maker movement, check out Make Magazine, or visit the Kitchener-Waterloo Kwartzlab website to see a maker space in action.

Story by Guest Writer: Victoria Stacey
Image Credit: Etsy


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