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Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202

About Face: Mapping Our Institutional Presence

Aimée Knight ∗ , Martine Courant Rife, Phill Alexander,
Les Loncharich, Dànielle Nicole DeVoss
Michigan State University, a digirhet project

In this article, we situate the web sites of technical and professional writing programs as important institutional spaces that serve as
interfaces to particular values, beliefs, and practices. Specifically, we examine the ways in which the web sites of United States-based
programs craft identity and anchor these programs. We also analyze the ways in which the digital interfaces we create to represent
our work do and don’t mesh with who we are as a field and what we value theoretically and pedagogically. We borrow from the work
of James Porter, Patricia Sullivan, Stuart Blythe, Jeff Grabill, and Libby Miles to articulate what we mean by institutional space, and
extend their model of institutional critique into digital space. Further, we offer a three-fold framework for analyzing institutional
spaces, related to institutional and technological dynamics, issues of agency and representation, and aesthetic dimensions.
© 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Aesthetics; Cultural analysis; Disciplinary stance; Interfaces; Institutional critique; Macro-level structures; Micro-level interventions;
Program web sites

We hope that institutions can be sensitized to users, to people, systematically from within. . . Though institutions
are certainly powerful, they are not monoliths; they are rhetorically constructed human designs (whose power is
reinforced by buildings, laws, traditions, and knowledge-making practices) and so are changeable. (James Porter,
Patricia Sullivan, Stuart Blythe, Jeff Grabill, & Libby Miles, 2000, p. 611).

1. Introduction

Institutional space matters. The geographies—both physical and virtual—we occupy and how we understand those
geographies are an important part of our work worlds and lives. We focus in this article on a particular space that serves
as an interface between our writing programs and the multiple populations we both represent and serve: program web
sites. Program web sites are worthy of our critical attention for a range of interpenetrating reasons, including the fact that
they craft and anchor program identities. They serve not only as key places for information dissemination but also as our
public digital face. Program web sites also represent our work, along with our professional and institutional identities
and affiliations. In many ways, they operate as rhizomatic social and intellectual maps. Program web sites present a
sense of what we value theoretically, pedagogically, and technologically; and, importantly, they are part of how we are
assessed in terms of our implementation of these values. Program web sites are created and live within institutional and
infrastructural hierarchies, and these hierarchies are often invisible to us. One such institutional hierarchical structure

∗ Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 517 432 3910; fax: +1 517 355 0159.
E-mail address: (A. Knight).

8755-4615/$ – see front matter © 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202 191

relates to the ways in which university sites typically trump college sites; college sites typically trump department
sites; department sites typically trump program sites; and program sites typically trump individual faculty members’
sites. Perhaps the supreme complexity related to program web sites—a complexity that, we think, partially explains
the lack of scholarly attention paid to program web sites—are the incredibly complex and diverse audiences for these
sites. Audiences include, but are certainly not limited to, future and current students; parents; high school admissions
counselors; a range of university academic advisors; prospective and current faculty; departmental and college staff;
departmental, college, and university administration; peer institutions; collaborating and partner institutions; and others
who are sometimes invisible and sometimes visible to us.
Gail Hawisher and Patricia Sullivan (1999), in their analysis of representations of women across a range of web
sites, focused in part on university web sites, which, they argued, often privilege the dispensing of information as
a primary purpose. This approach and these sites often focus less on acts we value (e.g., paying attention to users,
representing our work and pedagogical beliefs, crafting and supporting a culture of writing) and more on promoting
a particular image of the institution. While Hawisher and Sullivan focused, overall, on representations of women in
digital space, including women with academic affiliations, Barclay Barrios (2004) conducted a more specific analysis
of how programmatic web sites might be resituated. He called attention to the fact that the potential of program sites
is relatively unrealized. Rather than crafting rich virtual interfaces to our scholarly and institutional work, many sites
imagine students-as-consumers who visit to browse a course catalog, find an email address, or read course descriptions.
This approach turns a potentially robust, rich site into an extended course catalog and phone book.
In a now-landmark piece published in 1994, Cynthia L. Selfe and Richard Selfe interrogated the “borders” built into
classrooms, systems—and, specifically, software—and the power differentials constructed and maintained by these
borders. They drew upon the notion of contact zones to address “computer interfaces as maps that enact—among other
things—the gestures and deeds of colonialism, continuously and with a great deal of success” (Selfe & Selfe, 1994,
p. 482). Their piece is not, however, a treatise against software or the particular interfaces that live within software,
but rather a call to turn our attention toward the complex articulations and ideological beliefs built into those spaces.
Here we would extend their call to attend to the complex articulations and ideological beliefs visible within or under
our program web sites. Anne Wysocki and Julia Jasken (2004) performed the deepest interface interrogation since the
1994 Selfe and Selfe piece. Wysocki and Jasken argued that interfaces are rhetorical and reminded us of the importance
of understanding interfaces as such. Specifically, they asked us to question the ways in which interfaces encourage us
to see and also ask us to forget to see, or to overlook.
With this work as a backdrop for understanding program web sites as complex interfaces, we anchor our under-
standing of institutions within the institutional critique methodology offered by Porter et al. (2000) in their College
Composition and Communication article, which was later defended in a special issue of Works and Days (Grabill,
Porter, Blythe, & Miles, 2003). In the original article, the authors argued that: institutions are rhetorically constructed;
institutions are designed by humans; and institutions “contain spaces for reflection, resistance, revision, and productive
action” (Porter et al., 2000, p. 613). A methodology and set of associated tools the authors offered for engaging in
such revision is institutional critique, which is a local, spatial, empirical, and pragmatic mechanism for change. The
authors pointed toward a legacy of institutional criticism in our field but encouraged us to move beyond criticism to sit-
uated action that involves both a macro-level institutional analysis and micro-level rhetorical techniques. Importantly,
Porter et al. (2000) anchored institutional critique to—following postmodern mapping and boundary interrogation
practices—spatial analysis, arguing that physical and figurative spaces do work; they play into the construction of
an institution. Rhetorical and spatial issues are thus inseparably intertwined. Here, we situate program web sites
as part of the larger spatial context of institutions (and we mean institutions in their entirety but also programs as
In a response to Marc Bousquet’s (2002) analysis of the 2000 institutional critique piece, Grabill et al. (2003)
argued that institutions cannot be seen as monolithic nor should they be taken as always already the same. Rather,
each institution is a local manifestation of more general social relations: “institutions are literally physical entities;
they are embodied in buildings and other uses of spaces (such as a campus); they function through written policies
and procedures, through the decisions of those who enact them, and through the cooperation of those affected by
the decisions” (p. 224). These complex institutional dynamics and social relations are what we want to pay situated
attention to in this manuscript, as we interrogate the role that program web sites play as interfaces, and as we map
how we, as technorhetoricians, can assert agency in the ways in which our sites operate and live as institutional
192 A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202

In this article we situate the web sites of technical and professional writing programs as important institutional
spaces that serve as interfaces to particular values, beliefs, and practices. Specifically, we examine the ways in which
web sites craft identity and anchor programs. We also analyze the ways in which the digital interfaces we create to
represent our work do and don’t mesh with who we are as a field and what we value theoretically and pedagogically.
We do not, however, offer a sustained analysis of any one program’s web site. Rather, for our work to be most broadly
applicable, we present and apply a set of lenses through which we can construct claims across the 150 program sites
we reviewed—claims relevant to all (or at least most) of the sites representing our programs and our work online. First,
we describe the original research project and how, through this project, we became aware of some problematic issues
related to program web sites as interfaces. We then introduce the three analytical lenses—related to institutional and
technological dynamics, agency and representation issues, and aesthetic dimensions. We draw across these lenses to
suggest an action plan for virtual institutional critique, which allows us to identify the macro-level structures and to
investigate existing and pose new micro-level actions for improving the ways in which we interface digitally with the
stakeholders involved in our programs.

2. The original research project

We all have stories to tell about experiencing poorly designed web sites—web sites that confuse users, web sites
that do not seem to have a particular audience in mind, web sites with information buried under confusing navigation
structures, etc. And many of us have stories to tell about the inability to change our own program web sites due to
institutional politics regarding who is “web master.” We have all, as well, viewed web sites that are fairly spectacular as
far as serving various audiences and engaging users. The work we report on in this manuscript did not, however, begin
with a web site analysis and user experience study; it emerged during a much different study. While conducting her
doctoral dissertation research, Is There a Chilling of Digital Communication? (2008), co-author Martine Rife compiled
a list of technical and professional writing programs in order to administer a digital survey that was part of a larger
study on how copyright law influences digital composing. To obtain contact information to email the survey, Rife
visited a wide range of technical and professional writing program web sites.
While browsing the sites to gather contact information, Rife was—and, eventually, all of us were—intrigued by
some of the trends we observed across sites.1 These trends were particularly compelling because they were not unique
to one or two sites but rather spanned the majority of the sites we visited. After Rife concluded the survey portion of
her larger study, we revisited the sites for a different purpose: to conduct an analysis of the sites themselves. Before
we move further into the trends we saw across the sites and our suggestions for better programmatic representation in
digital space, we explain in more detail the selection of the web sites.

2.1. Methods used to select web sites

We viewed a stratified, random selection of 150 web sites representing professional and technical writing programs,
drawn from three sources: the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) writing majors list, the Society for
Technical Communication (STC) academic database, and the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW)
membership (as of September 2007). The lists are maintained by NCTE, STC, and ATTW. Because technical and
professional writing does not have a definitive publication listing member programs, to gather a full view of such
program web sites Rife constructed a master list based on the membership of the three lists. Using three lists rather
than one permitted population breadth and allowed for us to protect against biases that might arise from using only
one list. Additionally, using these lists provided a more coherent sample than using a web-based search engine to find
professional and technical writing programs.
Using a randomly selected list of web sites is important because it avoids selecting only “best case” or “worst
case” scenarios. Random selection meant that rather than picking web sites or programs we were already familiar
with, we instead created a master list from which we randomly pulled 150 web sites in order to obtain a good

1 There is a distinct difference between the discussion of Rife’s original study—included here because it is the entryway to and establishes
scaffolding for the discussion that follows—and the following sections. What Rife stumbled upon and what captured our collective attention is
worthy of a full-scale, rigorous study; certainly, this is fertile ground for research, but conducting a rigorous study is not our focus here. Rather, we
focus here on identifying and analyzing the general trends that we observed across the sites.
A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202 193

Table 1
Stratification of Programs in Entire Population (N = 232) before Random Selection (n = 150).
n %

Certificate programs 6 2
Two-year programs 37 16
Four-year programs 99 43
MA programs 61 26
PhD programs 29 13
TOTAL 232 100

representative sample. To obtain a random selection of program web sites, programs were divided into five categories:
certificate programs, two-year programs, four-year programs, M.A. programs, and Ph.D. programs. A master list
was created, which contained the entire population (N = 232; for stratification of the entire population, see Table 1
below). The stratification was created by selecting for review approximately 60% of the population in each of the five
There are, admittedly, limitations to using this method of population selection. First, this method only included
programs whose representatives had voluntarily inputted the required information on the three lists mentioned above.
Sites not included in any of the three lists were not considered for this study. For our study, programs were eliminated
if they were situated in countries outside the U.S.,2 if they had no web presence, or if only a single class was listed
on the membership list (because we were focusing on program sites, “programs” that were not certificate- or degree-
granting but rather offered just one technical or professional writing class were excluded). Therefore, the population
of web sites we viewed is biased in favor of writing programs that are involved in membership lists and have a web
presence—indicating, perhaps, a bias towards more active and tech-savvy programs. Thus, the sites we reviewed for
this article present one particular view of and one particular set of program sites. (Certainly, this is a necessary limitation
of any study of this kind.)

2.2. Trends across web sites

When viewing these sites, we experienced a certain dissonance between how our field constructs itself—as
researchers and teachers who operate at the fruitful intersection of theory and practice; as experts in digital writ-
ing practices; as technorhetoricians with robust notions of audience, agency, representation, and other issues in digital
spaces—and the ways our programs were represented in cyberspace. We hold ourselves to be teachers of digital litera-
cies (see Digital Rhetoric Collective, 2006; Grabill & Hicks, 2005; Henning, 2003; New London Group, 1996; Selber,
2004; Sorapure, Inglesby, & Yatchisin, 1998; WIDE Research Center Collective, 2005), and emphasize the impor-
tance of attention to audience, design, context, and culture. William Hart-Davidson (2001) argued that professional
and technical communicators should be seen as “pivotal players” in design systems—as “an important group shaping
content delivery and management technologies for the Web” (p. 146). Many others in our field have argued that we are
writing experts who should offer value-added information and communication complements to whatever organization
we work with (Carliner, 2003; Faber & Johnson-Eilola, 2002; Flacke, 2004; Reich, 2001; Spilka, 1998). We agree
with this (the multiple and rich ways in which we can influence content delivery and management), but we also argue
that, as a field, our theories should be regularly turned back on our own practices, specifically, here, as those practices
influence the construction of our professional identities within and outside of our institutions.
The web sites we visited, generally, do not portray the expertise we know is theorized, researched, and practiced
daily by the individuals comprising our field. We observed three key problems related to representation:

2 In her initial study, Rife focused only on program web sites in the United States. The two key reasons for doing so are, first, that Rife’s dissertation

work focused on intellectual property, and although she has some experience with international intellectual property, Rife’s law degree and Ph.D.
focus of study are on U.S. laws. The second reason is more general and relates to the dynamics of professional and technical communication outside
of the United States. Professional and technical communication differs a great deal inside the U.S. when compared to the ways in which it is situated
in more global contexts. Certainly, these differences merit scholarly attention and research, but we felt that such attention was beyond the scope of
this manuscript. (For one interesting vantage point on positionality in digital–international studies, see Sapienza, 2007; see, also, the special issue
of Computers and Composition, 2007, on international perspectives on computers and writing, guest edited by Taku Sugimoto.)
194 A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202

• Presence or lack thereof of student subjectivities: Many of the program web sites make students invisible.
Admittedly, FERPA (the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act)3 and discussions of the potentially
negative web presence of students in Facebook, MySpace, or other social network sites have gained much recent
attention. However, a common employer practice is “googling” potential interns or employees—not necessarily
to assess a negative web presence but to search for any web presence at all. Student writing majors entering the
job market as experts of digital literacy practices and techniques, and perhaps seeking careers in technical writing
or web development, certainly need an opportunity to have a professional and positive web presence anchored to
their institutional background. Technical and professional writing program web sites might be appropriate and
useful locations for showcasing student work and student subjectivities.
• Approaches that configure teaching faculty in potentially problematic ways: Many of the sites separate
out graduate teaching assistants, adjuncts, visiting professors, full-time professors, and so on. Importantly and
typically, the lower the rank, the less information is provided (e.g., pictures, email or other contact info, areas of
specialty, recent publications). In erasing the members of our units who have the most contact with students in our
courses and programs, we obscure their identity and, in ways similar to erasing student presence, we erase their
professional status in our units—regardless of what that status may be. For those programs who hire working
professionals as expert teachers, negating their identity on our program sites erases rich connections we could
potentially build in our communities and with local nonprofits and corporations.
• An absence of aesthetic attention: Although much has been written and suggested on issues of visual rhetoric in
composition and rhetoric studies in the past 15 years (and certainly visual rhetoric existed long before we turned
our collective attention to it), we see limited visual rhetoric and aesthetic considerations at play across the sites
we reviewed. Sites that lack aesthetic attention indicate an inability to produce an aesthetic engagement with the
audience—a lack of union between form and content, an inability to appreciate the artistry or craft of the site,
and/or an unappealing or unimaginative style underlying or guiding the site. In this way, sites that include visual
elements as mere “decoration” or include poorly deployed visual content (color use, icon use, photo use, and
much more) do not represent well what we know about the function of visual rhetoric and the role that visuals
play in technical and professional communication.
We unfold these three considerations by introducing a set of lenses that support an “action plan” allowing us to
identify the macro-level structures and analyze them, and to investigate existing and pose new micro-level actions
to improve the ways in which we interface digitally with the stakeholders involved in our programs.

What we have labeled a cultural lens relates to the control exercised over the shape of departments based on institu-
tional cultures and power dynamics; this exercise of power can be read, in part, by presences and absences on the web
site. Power is also exercised via affiliation and place, in relation to, for instance, an English department, and we draw on
access and power in suggesting an institutional lens. Patricia Sullivan and James Porter (1993) argued for a new curric-
ular geography for professional writing based on their examination of textual conversations among writers in the field.
We, on the other hand, examine the relationship and potential power struggles between English departments and profes-
sional writing programs based on the construction and presentation of programmatic interfaces. Sometimes professional
writing programs are visually encompassed—even consumed by—English departments. Sometimes professional writ-
ing programs are marginalized in other ways: for example, an entire program site being hosted on one professor’s
personal web page. A combined cultural and institutional lens and analysis informed by institutional geography can
help us to identify the ways in which, as Sullivan and Porter put it, professional writing “breaks with the dominant
service identity assigned to composition”(1993, p. 405) and represents both splits and connections in its web presence.
Our aesthetic lens allows us to explore the different modes of aesthetic production across the 150 program sites and
to accommodate, in part, a more inclusive view of the many different forms of aesthetic practice within the designed
space of these sites. The field of technical communication has, historically, emphasized document design; however,
“design” is often scripted in, we think, rather anemic ways. Here we provide a lens that allows us to see beyond the
technical and functional aspects of design, to interrogate the ways in which various digital design features work to
craft program identity.

3 FERPA, which applies to all schools that receive U.S. Department of Education funds, protects the privacy of student education records—grades,
overall grade point average, attendance, university-taken photographs (e.g., for an official student ID), and more.
A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202 195

3. Representation on writing program web sites

A technical and professional writing program can be seen as an admittedly and necessarily ad hoc and shifting
community comprised of more permanent members (such as faculty, staff, and alums) and members who transition
into and out of the program (i.e., students). The web site of a writing program must serve the diverse needs of the
program community, both performing as the living repository of program information and internal news about members
and serving as the public face of the writing program.
In this writing community, perhaps no component is more central to its goals and purpose than students. Students
are both participants in writing programs and potential long-term members; students are also both the subject of a
program web site and part of its audience. However, on many program web sites students are not represented. Images
of students—particularly students in writing environments, interacting with writing tools, and engaging in writing-
related tasks—are absent. Also absent are examples of student work and students as contributors or co-authors of a
site. By omitting student presence, sites marginalize the very students that are the focus of writing programs.
Rather than depicting students, often the images on writing program web sites are of institutional landmarks or
significant features of the campus landscape. These images serve as the public face of the institution and are often
used in recruitment, alumni fund drives, and other university development endeavors. These images are typically part
of the shared campus database of university relations or university promotions images—accessible by developers,
copyright-controlled by the institution, and generic enough to be flexible for use across different sites, spaces, and
documents within the institution. When a writing program uses such images, the program web site becomes, by
default, an extension of the university marketing function. The program site, then, is synthetically institutionalized,
similar to what John Killoran (2002) described as occurring in personal web pages.4 The university, in this example,
is appropriating the public discourse of a writing program as part of the branding of the larger institution; in fact, the
program site is supporting this appropriation by relying on university-manufactured images in representing itself and
its work. The consideration for students reflected in a site that is, visually, a branding exercise for the institution does
not extend far beyond recruitment. The practice of using promotional images disassociates the site—and, by extension,
the program—from students and from the teaching of writing.
Some program web sites do include writing-related images—of pencils, pens, notebooks, and computers. Typically,
however, these images are removed from a human or even larger rhetorical context. A part of a hand may be seen
holding a pencil or the torso of a student might be shown with a laptop, for example, but writing artifacts are often
depicted independent of users and external to writing situations. A site that collectively depicts professional writing,
the teaching of writing, and student writers through a clipart graphic of a pencil makes an argument about the nature of
writing and literacy. Such image use also devalues student writers; it argues that the writing tool supersedes the writer.
The pencil image as emblematic of writing is a material expression of the act of writing—an act that we understand to
be socially constituted, and which should, arguably, be represented as such. Many writing programs invest much effort
and resources in writing labs and writing centers in which students can work socially and compose collaboratively.
When images of students do appear on program web sites, they are often shown in a solitary act of writing—alone
with a notebook or alone with a computer. Images of students and particularly students in writing situations are rare
on program web sites. Those writing program sites that depict students in realistic, actual, social writing environments
articulate a cultural value that identifies student writers as stakeholders in the program and an awareness of writing as
a complex social practice.
Sometimes, when students are depicted on a program web site, the images are commercially procured—stock
images of students in verdant campus settings or idealized images of students in classrooms, perhaps even the “three
and a tree” default (the generic image of three students sitting in dappled sunlight under a large tree, in some generic-
enough-to-be-pretty-much-any-campus setting). This, too, is a turn towards institutionalizing a program site, in which
misrepresentation promotes the university vision of students at the expense of actual students in the program, doing
the work of and within the program. It is difficult to see how a writing program web site can respond to the needs of

4 By synthetically institutionalized, Killoran was referring to the ways in which a program (or office or institution) somewhat artificially becomes
subsumed through a template. Killoran was speaking specifically about personal home pages, but this institutional influence certainly can carry over
to other pages and sites. The worst possible effects of such synthetic institutionalization is that the institutional web authority, in effect, colonizes
the unit, and the voices and identity of a program are muffled by the larger identity and goals of the larger institution.
196 A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202

students, as Barrios (2004) endeavored to do on the Rutgers site, if the very students in the writing program are deemed
unfit for public display—or, in an equally dismissive move, not even considered as part of the program’s identity.
Similar to the omission of student images on the web sites of professional and technical writing programs is the
exclusion of students from the site authoring, site development, and/or site testing process. It is difficult to envision
a more potentially rich experience in professional writing for students than contributing to the writing program’s
site—as writer, developer, designer, and/or usability tester. The development of a program site can provide students
with practice in new media, visual rhetoric, and writing for the Web, and can expand their technological literacy. As a
practical exercise, students benefit from the decision-making process of making a program site and become “equipped
with ways in which they can consider and push at practices and standards in real ways” (DeVoss, Cushman, & Grabill,
2005, p. 16). It seems likely that student involvement in a program’s site would address many of our critiques of the
visual content of writing program sites. Contributing to a program’s site would give students some ownership of the
site and some agency to resist omission from the program’s public discourse. Despite the obvious benefits from student
involvement with writing program web sites, students typically have little or no choice regarding content or appearance
of their program’s site. Without student participation, the choices made in authoring a writing program web site are
more likely to be rhetorically implemented at the institutional level.
Some writing program web sites are completely text and forego the use of any images—another practice that
would probably be amended by student involvement in the site. The choice to preclude the use of images may reflect
institutional pressure and indicate a particular culture of writing pedagogy: programs or institutions may narrowly
define writing as wholly alphabetic-text based. The decision to not use images on a writing program site does a
disservice to students. An argument expressed by such sites is that technology is only minimally connected to writing,
and alphabetic writing is the most important component of the program. As a composition practice it is contrary to
the national impetus for technological literacy. Students in technical and professional writing programs will likely be
asked to perform multimodal composition in their professional work and to utilize technology to create combinations
of image and text. A program site that is entirely text is itself an inadequate example, for student writers, of professional
writing, and it remains disturbing to see a community comprised in part of writers and teachers of writing be insensitive
to the needs of the student audience.
A university writing program’s web site can justifiably be considered a reflection of the writing professionals and
writing teachers in that program, and those professionals are justified in claiming their program’s web site as their
digital writing space. Ironically, and uncomfortably, professionals in the program may not determine the manner and
extent to which students are represented on a writing program’s site. Writing programs may not have agency to amend
and edit their own digital writing spaces.

4. The institutional lens

A second key issue to consider—along with issues of representation and visual rhetoric—when viewing program
web sites is the issue of technical control: who is able to dictate and/or modify content? While a few sites we researched
clearly allowed for members of the department to login to maintain pages, the vast majority of sites were seemingly
managed by a “web master” positioned somewhere else within the institution (e.g., at the departmental level, but more
often at the college level, through a university relations office, or through a centralized information technology unit). In
most cases, this web master is a faceless and untraceable mediator between the program and the web site. The decision
for a department or program to contract its web site in such a way may be related to resources—the department may
not have a web author capable of creating robust, accessibility-compliant sites; the department may not have funds to
pay for file hosting and network maintenance; or, if they do have the means to file host and maintain a network space,
that space may not allow for robust technical functionality (e.g., a content management system, tiered access levels,
database coding).
Along with resources are issues of institutional hierarchy and control, which can prevent programs from having
the agency to run their web sites and present themselves digitally in the manner they would like. For example, while
working on a project at a medium-sized midwestern university, one of us was issued a cease-and-desist order for
remixing a university logo for use as part of a program web site. (In this case, Phill borrowed the look, feel, and
colors of the university logo but stylized the design and added the name of a new initiative.) The recommendation
from the university’s legal counsel was, “Why don’t you use the standard University logo with your program’s name
below it?” The recommendation included a suggestion that the program also use the same template as the university’s
A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202 197

Fig. 1. Sample university-regulated graphic standard guidelines. (Michigan State University, 2008).

Fig. 2. A set of screen captures of five very similar-looking university home pages (references deliberately withheld).

homepage. Another one of us received a warning message for altering the design of the university logo while working
at a small midwestern technical school. The technical communication program web site colors and aesthetics clashed
harshly with the university logotype (a text treatment), so Dànielle removed the bright gold background and made
the logo transparent. Two days later, she received a message from a technology representative from the university
relations unit who threatened to contact the central information technology staff and have the altered logo forcibly
removed if she didn’t manually remove it within 24 hours (see Fig. 1 for our institution’s graphic standard guidelines
for one of our university logotypes).5 This is, consequently, where most issues of university institutional control are
manifested: logo inclusion, color use (always as prescriptions and prohibitions), and the use of templates. While template
design can be highly useful, it can also lead to something similar to that which appears in Fig. 2. When attempting to
differentiate a program and to showcase what makes the students, faculty, and staff unique, a template that is used across
campus—and, in many cases, which resembles numerous other university web sites—works to subjugate expression to
function, familiarity, and consistency.6 In the examples in Fig. 2, there is little to differentiate the identity, personality,
or feel of the first from the second or from the third, beyond the use of specific university colors and logos.
A program might desire to do specific things but be locked into a template, forced to submit work to a web master who
is concerned with a specific style sheet and not with department needs or intellectual and rhetorical expectations, and

5 While we recognize the branding function of logos and the importance of an institution maintaining its graphic identity due to the risks of

tarnishment, blurring, and misuse, we include these examples because we think they speak compellingly to the ways in which graphic policing
occurs and the potential limiting effects of such policing.
6 We do not, however, want to dismiss the productive aspects of similar function, visual familiarity, and technical consistency across sites. When

used well, these aspects help to anchor viewers, and help users to understand a site—its overall layout, its navigational structure, the way content
unfolds, etc. When analyzed in regard to institutional design mandates and templates offered in absence of particular rhetorical situations and
programmatic identity, however, set structure and locked functions are prohibitive.
198 A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202

required to negotiate the institutional “web” to get a site online. Such dynamics make it difficult-to-nearly-impossible
for the individuals a program might wish to charge with designing the program site to have control over the look,
feel, and content of a site. It is thus critical to look at institutional issues of control, power, and standardization (or
power through standardization) when considering program web sites. It is also important for programs to think about
ways they can intervene in small ways—by remixing and subverting templates and figuring out how to negotiate the
relationships between program and web master, between web services and IT staff, etc.

5. The aesthetic lens

Given that our review revealed a number of visually similar, often impersonal templates and generally uninviting
sites, it was clear that attention to aesthetics would add another dimension to our cultural analysis and institutional
critique of program presence. The aesthetics of a site contribute to its interface and reflect particular values, beliefs,
and practices. The field of technical communication has, historically, emphasized visual design; however, “design”
is often scripted in, we think, rather anemic ways. We thus think it could be useful to consider a more rhetorical
notion of the aesthetic—one that could account for a richer consideration of audience. A rhetorical consideration of
the aesthetic could help open new spaces at the disciplinary and the local level. We see this as a critical—but often
overlooked—area for action. Consider this general case in point: Even when a program site is not confined to the
institutional templates we’ve described above, there is a trend for designers to borrow (sometimes quite heavily) from
such resources as the The Non-Designers Design Book (Williams, 2004) or from non-institutional template sites, many
of which have areas to download relatively generic “educational” site templates. Although a site designed in such a
way might appropriately deploy the contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity concepts Robin Williams (2004)
prescribes or adequately employ a conventional web template, the site may likely be aesthetically lackluster and its
visual aspects merely functional. To us, this trend signals an opportunity for the field to redefine its relationship with
the aesthetic. Instead of treating design peripherally—or, from an institutional perspective, as what “the art program
does”—the program web site offers a technical or professional writing program the chance to embrace what it does
best, which is to approach artistry, craft, and design from a rhetorical standpoint.
This shift can help us, as a field, rethink the ways that our discipline might claim aesthetic issues as disciplinary
ones. By aesthetic, we mean more than the formal aspects of design principles. For the aesthetic to be a useful concept,
we view it as a deep consideration of our audiences’ perception-based understanding or perception-based ways of
knowing. An aesthetic lens allows us to better understand how an audience makes meaning through their senses. This
lens places emphasis on how the audience—in this case, the site user—makes meaning: how they read, view, interact,
and otherwise make meaning through their senses. By placing the attention on the user’s senses, this lens is able to
accommodate a variety of potentially aesthetic issues including design, artistry, craft, sensory appeal—and even issues
of usability and interaction. In our review of program interfaces and our analysis of aesthetic aspects, we have found
two key affordances of this lens.
The first affordance is that of form and content—a union of a site’s form and content. We view the user’s perception-
based understanding as conduit between the form (site design) and the content (site information). Observing the
interplay of site form and content, we often noticed an absence of aesthetic attention—that is, a lack of union between
form and content, which indicates an inability to produce aesthetic engagement with the audience. This happens most
often when users are unable to appreciate (or even perceive) the artistry or craft of the site, or when users are confronted
with an unappealing or unimaginative style underlying the site. Recognizing the inseparable work that form and content
do as a unified whole allows us to recognize the larger aesthetic communicative work happening, similar to the ways
in which Wysocki (2001) encouraged us to think more richly about the content–form dynamic. Not surprisingly, form
and content do not often work well together when the program site is based on a template, for instance.
The second affordance is spaces for sensory engagement. Program sites in general offer limited spaces or opportu-
nities to engage users’ senses—and the ways users might make meaning through their senses. In fact, we think it’s safe
to say that we are in the cave-painting era of program site interfaces. Aesthetic engagement requires more than adding
attractive pictures or designing a visually appealing site. A rhetorical notion of the aesthetic also requires evocation
of feelings and appeals to character. Contemplating the aesthetic allows us to think about how we would like to create
spaces for people to interact and engage with our sites or, more literally, our programs. An aesthetic lens offers a tool
to rethink the ways in which users can perceive a site, and to take into consideration how users make meaning through
their experience with a site. Aesthetic construction of a program web site allows us to craft sites that can profoundly
A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202 199

engage users and allow them to experience not only the web space but the look and feel of the actual program. To do
this, a shift needs to happen—a shift from content-centered design, in which the program interface is built around an
existing body of information, to a user-centered approach that places the user at the center of attention, with added
emphasis on aesthetic elements and sensory perception.

6. Representation, control, and aesthetics: Recommendations

Having identified three key issues related to program web site design, and having discussed the ways in which
representation impacts a program’s population and presence, the ways in which technical control can affect pro-
gram site development, and the ways in which a deeper notion of aesthetic attention is crucial, we provide a set of
recommendations for interested stakeholders to consider.
Programs should push for students to have a major stake in the program web site. As professional writers and
digital rhetoricians, we teach students to design web sites with careful consideration of audience, purpose, context,
resources, etc., but all too often those same students are absent from program sites. When considering institutional
relationships and, specifically, program web site design, programs should advocate for student agency. Students should
be represented on the site in both visual and textual content, and students should contribute to site prototyping, testing,
development, and maintenance. This would not only give more control to the program but would grant students
important work experience and a voice in how they are represented.
There are a range of ways in which to invite students as stakeholders. One way is to shape a web-authoring course
around the key project of redesigning or significantly contributing to the program web site. Certainly, this is a risky
project for a range of reasons (e.g., students may not be very experienced with XML and CSS or with usability
standards and expectations), but there are several ways to engage students in such work. Further, there are a range of
ways in which both the students and the program might benefit. Students could be involved in a strategic analysis of
“competing” programs, to review others’ sites and assess their functions. Students might design questions and then
conduct focus groups of various stakeholders in the program web site (e.g., administrators, faculty, academic advisors).
Students might create wireframes to present to the site developers and coders, especially if those responsible for the
technical aspects of site maintenance are separate from the program.
Those involved in creating a program web site should create a map that traces the flow of information and action
to create, modify, and update the web site. While it would be difficult (and perhaps be unnecessary) for outside
visitors to discover and understand the hierarchies and relationships that scaffold a program web site, it is critical that
everyone at the program level know exactly who has control over site content, updating, maintenance, etc. At our
institution, we would map in the Professional Writing program director, the departmental technology coordinator, the
college technology coordinators, and our Academic Technology Services staff (the unit that supplies and maintains
centralized server space for units). We might also map in the various campus units that write and police network policy
standards and expectations. We would map in our university relations office, as this office provides the graphics and
web standards guidelines that all units on campus must implement. We would map in our various audiences—both
internal and external.
Certainly, creating such maps and workflows is time-consuming, and doing so is often “invisible” work (that is,
work not rewarded in terms of tenure and promotion). We would still argue, however, the importance of creating such
maps. Mapping the complexity of technical hierarchies and paths is incredibly helpful in understanding how sites live.
Further, we have found that such mapping places map-makers in crucial institutional positions. For instance, Dànielle
was recently asked to lead a project to redesign her college’s web site. She began with a competitive review and then
moved into conducting separate focus groups of current students; faculty; administrators; and high school students,
parents, and counselors. In conducting focus groups with current students, she was able to map the ways in which
students in the 19 different degree programs in the college use the site and what aspects they value or would value. In the
faculty focus groups, Dànielle was able to make some critical connections with techno-innovative (and also the equally
important techno-hesitant) colleagues in departments beyond her own. In working closely with the college’s technical
staff, she was able to create a rapport between the college’s staff (who served as liaison) and the university relations
unit that maintained the college site. Creating a map is not a significant act in and of itself; however, establishing and
fostering networks of stakeholders based on the maps is a significant act.
Templates should be viewed as tools and not as tyranny. Although we have critiqued templates for the potential
design and layout power they hold and for their locked structure and fixed order, templates can also be powerful tools
200 A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202

that provide a skeleton for creative reworking and modification. When a program is “forced” to use a template for
whatever reason, considering the template as a starting point and not as a dictated end can lead to agency. That is, we
are not suggesting that templates be scrapped and all programmatic web development be tackled from scratch; this
would erase the important and helpful function that templates have. Instead, templates should always be approached as
a starting point and a framework upon which to build. Building on the framework that templates provide is, however,
key to navigating these particular tools.
Templates might best be navigated by first identifying the features—and these may be surface-level or they may
exist within the code of a page—that are useful and helpful and contribute to the program’s digital identity. Then, we
might move to identifying those aspects that are unhelpful or that disrupt a program’s identity. Replacing these less-
functional identity elements with more appropriate, self-selected elements is an important way to approach template
Discussions need to take place between programs and the institution (however it aligns locally) about what the
program needs. Web site issues frequently become a top-down concern, with a web master or web team somewhere
in the institution enforcing a set of rules and regulations. Although some of these rules may be hard-and-fast, it is also
likely that dialogue could lead to significant institutional change—perhaps from something as small as a program being
allowed to choose its own site photographic content, to change as large as the institution completely rethinking its web
use guidelines. In the case where this dialogue occurs, it is crucial for program representatives to have compelling,
specific examples of suggested changes. It is not likely that a program will be granted “write” access to a university-
maintained web site on the argument that the program wants such access. On the other hand, if a program prepares a
well-documented, peer-institution-supported model for changing a program’s site, or changing who can contribute to
that site, there is a higher probability that the request will be granted.
Planning and preparation for such dialogue is incredibly important in situations where the program is requesting
specific customizations or changes to a university-maintained site. Asking for deviations from a standard template may
be seen as “extra work,” and not only will technical staff be asked to buy in to the changes but administrators at varying
institutional levels may also have to grant permissions and allocate personnel to work on the project.
Writing program site designers should move beyond the technical and functional aspects of design toward a more
rhetorical consideration of audience engagement. When creating a program site, developers should be able to deeply
consider and test the various ways people make meaning via their aesthetic engagement (this extends into issues of
usability and interaction). Developers should consider users’ perception-based understanding as the conduit between
the form (site design) and the content (site information).
Technical writing work, especially related to usability issues and testing, offers much for us to consider regarding
site testing. Adding layers to our site testing processes should enhance the ways in which we approach aesthetic issues
in web-development projects. Participants might be prompted before a user test to identify sites they return to and use
regularly, specifically due to site aesthetics. Questions users might be asked during one-on-one or small group usability
tests might invite them to assess a site’s aesthetic appeal. More fine-grained questions might ask participants to respond
to specific color combinations, typefaces and typeface use, photographs, graphics, and other aesthetic elements.
Sites should engage users’ senses and the ways users might make meaning through them. As we build tools
and applications that incorporate increasingly complex systems, knowledge work, and user interaction, a focus on
the user’s senses can bring a more user-centered and human-centered approach to design, to the representation of
information, to interaction, and to usability. This approach makes it possible to examine the ways people engage the
aesthetic performatively (that is, through sensory perception and through their experience) and to examine the meanings
people associate with that experience. The aesthetic that we propose is located not in an object of perception but in
the rhetorical notion of delivery—in how the aesthetic is perceived. This means that the aesthetic is located not in an
image or a sound but in how that image or sound is perceived by the senses.
Inquiry into aesthetic issues can help us to better understand how people make meaning via their perception—that
is, how they read, view, interact, and otherwise make meaning through their senses. It is a way to move beyond

7 It is critical here that the program stakeholders do a good deal of research before engaging in template customization or change. We noted

earlier in the manuscript issues two of us had in “tweaking” university logos. Logos are trademark-protected intellectual property, and altering or
removing them from templates can have significant legal repercussions. Fortunately, many university-level sites offer style guides and explanatory
information about what can and cannot be customized; these guides are also a useful (but not necessarily unchangable or monolithic) starting point
toward customization and change. (For an example university web site guide, see
A. Knight et al. / Computers and Composition 26 (2009) 190–202 201

interfaces that offer scripted and predictable institutional façades and toward interfaces that enact the space—the look
and feel—of the actual program. This approach offers theoretically grounded yet practical guidance as we strive to
deliver information and experiences via multimodal platforms in ways that best engage our audiences.

7. Implications

The interface is fast becoming the primary cultural form of the digital age. However, we need a better understanding
of the interface and its intersections with human perception and agency. When it comes to program sites, we know
that a good interface isn’t about a compelling design or even a dynamic portrayal of a program. A good interface starts
with how people understand a particular program via its site. An understanding of people is of primary importance:
who uses the site; why they use the site; and the ways they can possibly interact, engage, and make meaning with
We shape our conclusions as recommendations to attend to a concern Porter et al. (2000) raised: that is, to address
the frustration (which very much still exists) with “the gap between local actions and more global critiques” (p. 615).
As many of us know, especially those of us who are core to professional and technical writing programs or who serve
as writing program administrators, global critiques are easy to provide. They also gain traction and have rhetorical
velocity. Situated, local action is, however, often invisible in our intellectual landscape. There are multitudes of articles
and books that sustain critique; there are fewer resources that make visible the everyday, local actions we can or should
engage in to enrich the ways in which our web sites serve as interfaces. We hope we have presented some ideas and
tools for such local actions.
Aimée Knight is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Saint Joseph’s University. Her research interests include aesthetics, visual
rhetorics, multimodality, and new media. Knight’s recent work focuses on improving how the field of Rhetoric and Composition understands the
diverse potentialities for meaning-making and meaning-taking in the production and consumption of media convergent texts and experiences.

Martine Courant Rife is a writing professor at Lansing Community College and a licensed Michigan attorney. Her research interests include rhetoric
and the law, copyright, the canon of invention, and authorship. Rife’s work has most recently appeared in appeared in Kairos, Pedagogy, H-Net Book
Reviews, Teaching English in the Two Year College, Technical Communication, Computers and Composition, and Journal of Business and Technical
Communication. Rife is the 2007 winner of the Society for Technical Communication’s Frank R. Smith Outstanding Journal Article Award.

Phill Alexander is a Ph.D. student in the Rhetoric and Writing Program at Michigan State University. His research interests include popular culture,
portrayals of race in digital spaces, digital identity, gaming studies, computers and writing pedagogy, distance learning, visual rhetoric and issues of
community formation and authorship in cyberspace. Alexander’s work will appear in a forthcoming issue of Computers and Composition and the
rhetoric/game studies anthology Play and Pedagogy. He was the recipient of the 2007 Kairos Award for Service in Computers and Writing.

Les Loncharich is a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Writing at Michigan State University. Loncharich’s research interests include visual composition
practices in everyday life, pedagogy of visual composition in writing classrooms, identity development and multimodal composition, and the
comparative material rhetoric of urban and suburban space.

Dànielle Nicole DeVoss is an associate professor and Director of the Professional Writing Program at Michigan State University. Her research
interests include computer/technological literacies; feminist interpretations of and interventions in computer technologies; and intellectual property
issues in digital space. DeVoss’ work has most recently appeared in Computers and Composition, Computers and Composition Online, and Kairos.
DeVoss recently co-edited (with Heidi McKee) Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues (2007, Hampton Press),
which won the 2007 Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award.


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