Context is King
While working on my PhD at the University of Washington, I taught for a couple of years in an Interdisciplinary Writing Program. The fundamental concept of the IWP was to address a fundamental problem common to first and second year composition classes, which is the lack of context.
(A brief aside on “writing in the disciplines” or “interdisciplinary writing” programs: Most college composition courses take one of two approaches: the either ask the students to write about literature or they take a topical approach, choosing topics in which they believe the students will be interested. The former approach assumes the students are interested in what the instructor is interested in, as many of these courses are taught by graduate students or professors whose real interest is something literary. The latter creates an environment in which the ostensible topic of the writing is an artificial academic context usually dealt with very superficially, since the real purpose of the course is the writing, not the topic. IWP and programs like it try to solve that by situating the students and the instructor in a real academic context: an existing undergraduate course in another discipline. The students’ writing tasks are situated in an authentic environment, where they are actually trying to understand and enter an ongoing academic discourse.)
I was reminded of the importance of context (and my love for the insights of the social sciences broadly) this weekend as I watched two videos from an event Microsoft Research held at MIT, to celebrate the launch of their new lab in Cambridge:
- danah boyd on socio-technical practices (streaming video)
- Bill Buxton on “Designing Experience” (streaming video)
(Sorry for the mms links – you can rip them via mplayer if you need to watch in offline mode, but I think reposting them here would be considered a copyright violation).
Both really celebrate / argue for what we might call the situatedness of technology design: the ways in which an understanding of the cultural context of technology use needs to be brought back into the design of those technologies and how non-engineering approaches (from the social sciences in danah’s talk and from Design in Buxton’s talk) can help to provide that context.