teaching rhetorical analysis of software applications

A little over a year ago I designed a new project to use in my technical and business writing courses. The first iteration of this project was used in my Fall 2009 Technical Writing class at Purdue. The Rhetorical Analysis Project asks students to examine a Web 2.0 application and a corresponding forum. Students are asked to select a freely available Web 2.0 application that would serve as a writing tool that could be used in the workplace or university settings. Many of the tools available and chosen focused on project management and collaboration. The second requirement for selecting an application is the existence of a user-centered forum or discussion board specifically discussing the chosen application.

My decision to develop this assignment was based on two other projects assigned in my technical writing classes. These group assignments, the White Paper Project and User Documentation in Multimedia Project, also focused on a Web 2.0 application related to writing. So, the individual (as opposed to collaborative) rhetorical analysis project assisted students in selecting Web 2.o applications that could then be used as the focus of the next two projects. My rationale for creating the assignment was/is as follows:

  • by early selection of Web 2.0 tools and subsequent research into those tools students would be better informed about these applications and thus more likely to select robust and relevant applications to focus on in their next two projects
  • the common subject matter that already linked the white paper and user documentation projects would further emphasize the importance of research and writing that builds on previous work
  • by having three projects that each built on the knowledge gained in the previous assignments, students could not only gain a better understanding of their subject matter but would also be able to focus on honing their writing skills rather than starting new research each time
  • in continuing to build on earlier research, students could learn techniques and strategies for later stages of research
  • students would learn the important skills of rhetorical analysis by applying their analysis to less traditional forms of texts
  • by analyzing the discussion forums, students learn the value of user-generated content and how to use that content as sources of information about a topic and its varied audiences
  • discussion forum analysis both bolstered an understanding of audience, user needs, and the conventions of online asynchronous and network communications
  • analyzing the rhetorical situation and rhetorical elements of a software application: facilitates a more complex understanding of how rhetoric functions outside the classroom, demonstrates how techniques for rhetorical analysis can apply to varied situations andfthus, how they can be used in other decision making activies, and encourages a broader view of what constitutes writing in the age of digital media