sustainable learning spaces

A Space Defined: Four Years in the Life of the FSU Digital Studios

Stephen J. McElroy, Jennifer Wells, Andrew Burgess, Jeff Naftzinger, Rory Lee, Josh Mehler, Jason Custer, Aimee Jones, and Joe Cirio, Florida State University


Institutional Memories
Local Contexts
Visions Change

Williams Building
Johnston Building


Next-gen multiliteracy center spaces arise primarily from local, institutional contexts and for local, institutional needs. Since each institution is different, each space is likewise unique. In this section, we seek both to outline the needs that were perceived at the outset of envisioning the FSU Digital Studio and to articulate how the decisions made to respond to those needs shaped that vision. To this end, we ask these and other questions:

Figure 2: An interview with Kathleen Yancey.
(Video Transcript)

As Kathleen Yancey notes in the video seen here, the initial impetus for creating the Digital Studio at Florida State was her realization that “we had nowhere to send students” to get assistance in how to compose effectively in online spaces. Discussing specifically the one-credit course in electronic portfolios she taught shortly after her arrival to FSU in 2006, Yancey says it was apparent that “we needed somewhere to send students” in order for them to produce the type of work common to an electronic portfolio, a text housed online that exceeds the alphabetic. As she explains, the English Department’s Reading Writing Center (RWC) was a tutoring space keyed to alphabetic texts, and the computer labs available to students, located on the other side of campus, offered little assistance in terms of how to use new online digital technologies. This need, coupled with the rising number of First-Year Composition (FYC) instructors and other English faculty at FSU interested in incorporating new technologies and implementing multimodal pedagogies in their classrooms, created a considerable groundswell for a tutoring space that could offer both rhetorical and technological assistance.

Institutional Memories

In formulating a vision for such a tutoring space, Yancey drew on her prior experience at Clemson University, where she was instrumental in developing the Class of ’41 Studio. The purpose of that Studio was to build a space that could support the Communication Across the Curriculum (CAC) program in a way that didn’t itemize communication. That is to say, rather than separate oral, written, and visual communication, the Class of ’41 Studio would assist students in all areas of communication. This Studio, Yancey says, was envisioned as a space for students to collaborate and share, yet one where they could also receive individualized attention.

Although the vision for the original Digital Studio at FSU was influenced by Yancey’s experience with the Class of ’41 Studio at Clemson, the former was not a simple replication of the latter. For starters, FSU garnered less money and less space to work with than Clemson. The graduating class of ’41 graciously donated one million dollars to support Clemson’s Studio, whereas the approved grant Yancey penned afforded us only $25,000. Moreover, those at Clemson were able to remodel a pre-existing space, the Pierce Center, which was much larger than the space we were able to secure for the FSU Digital Studioa space Yancey describes as “an oversized closet.” In addition, the departmental and programmatic ties were different for each Studio: unlike the Class of ’41 Studio at Clemson, the Digital Studio at FSU wasn’t created to support a CAC program; rather, it was meant to support the work being done within the English Department, especially in the two-course sequence of FYC.

Local Contexts

Once the grant for the Digital Studio at FSU was approved, we also had to consider how we would inform and contribute to what was already in place in the English Departmenthow we were shaping and being shaped by our local context. Because the English Department already had one tutoring space, the aforementioned RWC, the Digital Studio was initially presented as an extension of the RWC, a description underscored by its location; the “oversized closet” we had to work with was located next to the more spacious RWC. Despite the secondary status that comes with being labeled an “extension” of a larger enterprise, forming a relationship with the RWC proved fruitful in that it allowed us access to a pool of potential (and sometimes experienced) tutors. While many of the tutors staffing the RWC were comfortable tutoring with strictly alphabetic texts, a handful of tutors who had both the rhetorical and the technological literacy we valued were interested in tutoring in this new space.

Thus, as a means to staff the Digital Studio, we saw the already established RWC as a rich resource, and going forward, we realized we had to consider ways to make this resource sustainable. Toward that end, we took the time in tutor staff meetings as well as general graduate teaching assistant meetings to provide tutors and TAs as a whole, both experienced and incoming, with an awareness of what the Digital Studio was and how it functioned. In addition, we highlighted the benefits of working as a tutor in the Digital Studio. More specifically, and working under the notion that digital dexterity is important now and will increasingly be so in the future, we situated working in the Digital Studio as an opportunity for tutors to expand and hone their own digital literacies. By offering a rewarding experience, we simultaneously began to dissipate the fear and anxiety that accompanies tutoring in new spaces, learning new technologies, and helping students with digital projects. To learn more about how we worked to train tutors upon raising interest and gaining initial buy-in, see the “Training” page.

Although there was, from our perspective, a clear exigence for the Digital Studio—that there was a need to provide a space to assist students in creating digital and multimedia projects, as signaled by Yancey’s and others’ experiences—we also knew that not every instructor in the English Department perceived or valued this exigence to the same degree. We knew that we were in many ways ahead of the curriculum and that not every instructor would ask students to create the type of work we were willing to support. However, rather than perceive this as a hindrance, we saw it as an opportunity: if instructors knew they had a space like the Digital Studio that could assist their students in the rhetorical and technological literacies necessary to complete digital and multimedia projects, perhaps those instructors would be more willing to include assignments that would result in such projects. Although we were ahead of the curriculum, we knew that we could impact and change it with the support we were able to offer. In short, we saw an opportunity to change the current curriculum by aligning it with recent scholarship in online and digital composing, which in turn created a continued curricular need for a tutoring space like the Digital Studio. What emerged was, in a sense, a self-perpetuating symbiosis between the DS and the shifting curriculum that approached digital composing in salient and scholarly-attentive waysa key feature of the Digital Studio’s long-term sustainability.

Despite our rather large goal of not only helping students compose digital and multimedia projects, but also influencing the types of assignments common to courses offered through the English Department, we knew that we were starting smallin space, in resources, in available tutors, in potential tutees, in name recognition, and in overall experience. Consequently, our traffic was minimal during the first two semesters, following our launch in the fall of 2008. The traffic we did receive often came toward the end of the semester, as that is when instructors in the department tended to assign digital and multimodal projects.

Visions Change

However, in the following year, we witnessed the type of curricular change that we had both anticipated and hoped for: the creation of a third track for the English major, one that would complement the other two tracks already in place, Literature and Creative Writing. This track, titled Editing, Writing, and Media (EWM), included many classes that required the type of work we at the Digital Studio were well equipped to assist: digital remediations, electronic/digital portfolios, blogs, websites, visual essays, and the like. In short, the advent of EWM resulted in the Digital Studio transforming from a rather empty and rarely used tutoring space into the thriving, innovative, technologically advanced, and intellectually stimulating environment we imagined it could be.

That said, the Digital Studio’s identity is not tied directly to the EWM English track. In fact, our usage numbers continue to increase each year, which is the result of our concerted efforts to deviate from our original vision and market ourselves as a rhetorically savvy tutoring space for students across the disciplines. Although we are housed within the English Department, like the RWC, we now position ourselves as an interdisciplinary service, hosted in a space where students from any discipline can come to receive tutoring assistance. And unlike the RWC, which operates according to a one-to-one tutoring model, we offer a range of tutoring options. For instance, students can work one-on-one with a tutor, but they can also work on their own, in groups, and/or with multiple tutors and, as sometimes happens, with other students already working in the Digital Studio. The type of tutoring offered varies as well. We can help students generate project ideas, learn how to use particular programs and software, troubleshoot technical problems, discuss rhetorical strategies and maneuvers, and provide feedback on work in progress. In this sense, we try to attend to two of the three types of literacies Stuart Selber (2004) theorized in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age: “functional” literacy and “rhetorical” literacy, or the abilities to utilize technology effectively and in ways that are rhetorically purposeful and persuasive. In addition to acting as a tutoring space, the Digital Studio also functions as a working space; that is, even if students feel as though they don’t need tutoring, they can still come to the Digital Studio to work and to take advantage of the available resources.

Given this description, the Digital Studio has a lot to offer, not only to students in courses offered via the English Department, but also to students across campus. As we move forward with our current vision, we must continue our efforts to advertise these benefits across campus. In addition, we must continue to highlight the benefits of working in the Digital Studio and to support the newly developed EWM major track. These strategies have helped us to reshape our vision for the Digital Studio and to make it a sustainable space that continues to attract tutors and students wanting to develop further their understanding of and ability to create effective digital texts.

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