Teaching Rudimentary Coding in English Classes?

I’ll be teaching some basic Swift and Java coding in my 300-level ENGL intro to web design class tomorrow. The students have already been learning to build websites all term. After weeks with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and frameworks such as Bootstrap, they’re understandably tired of the all coding they’ve already learned. And Swift and Java aren’t front-end web standards, as everything else we’ve studied this term is.

But. It’s worth showing them, at least.

Because this will allow my students to make the documents they’ve been writing and designing all semester (and in the future) into ‘apps’ for phones and tablets. The apps, when launched, load the students’ web documents or websites full-screen on mobile devices.

So it’s useful—if they can handle it. But I’m concerned about overwhelming them. I do get the clear sense that students in 2022 are especially scared of coding. Probably from the bizarrely neurotic ways coding are figured in popular culture.

But will this be too much for college juniors who haven’t ever studied code? They really only have to edit line 24 in each file, to put in their own website URL addresses, and probably want to replace the ‘Geoff’ icon with an icon of their own design. Then they’ll have to compile this code, using one or both of two (free) compiler applications they’ll have to install on their computers and learn to use. But if they can learn to use these templates, then they’ll be able to make a kind of mobile app called a ‘WebView’ app — basically a first entry into coding. And post those into the Apple, Google, and Amazon App Stores.

Here’s the code in Swift, in the XCode compiler (which only runs on MacOS):

This is Swift code to create an iOS app.

With the code above (written in the language Swift), they’ll be able to create an iOS app which could be submitted to the Apple App Store (it only takes about a minute), which would load their personal portfolio websites (or final class projects) on iPhones or iPads. Line 24 is the important line, which contains the website URL which should be loaded, full-screen, when the app is launched.

Here’s the corresponding code in the language Java, in Android Studio (which runs on Windows, Linux, and MacOS):

This is Java code to create an Android app.

With the second example, they’ll be able to compile an Android app which loads the web address they provide in a full-screen app on Android phones and tablets. Again, line 24 is the crucial one in this code. And basically, this is just what Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and many social media apps do.

You can see this example ‘Geoff Sauer’ app now running in the images below:

This project would let each of us in the class make a “Geoff Sauer” app (or one with a student’s own name, or their service learning clients’ names). Clicking the “Geoff Sauer” icon opens this website, my personal site, as an app. It makes reading this blog something you could do daily (if you want).

While everything above may seem technical and complex and new, I quite believe this is a skill worth learning. Especially for students who work on service learning projects for deserving nonprofit clients, being able to deliver a complimentary and complementary app to the websites they’re already building can be very useful. (Even if students are hesitant to venture much into learning coding?)

These screen shots, by the way, are emulated (virtual) iPhones (an iPhone 8) and Android phones (a Samsung Nexus). Did you know that computers can do that?

This is a virtual Samsung Nexus phone, with the "Geoff Sauer" app installed.

My students are always amazed when I show them their computers have virtual cellphones inside of them. (Especially when I get the computers to emulate newer and better cellphones than any of us actually own.) Doubly so when I point out the MacBook Air I teach with is from 2015, so they can certainly do it with their computers. Both XCode and Android Studio are completely free of charge, so the only thing stopping students from exploring this over the summer is their own time. Fun.

As you know, sometimes I’m asked why this is taught in an English class. I’ve written about this in the past. English departments in the U.S. have always taught students to produce culture: in the past, this has been poetry, novels, short fiction and creative nonfiction, of course. As well as the venerable persuasive essay. And all of those still exist. But I strongly believe that apps and websites are now a vital part of contemporary culture, and English students should be able to create 2022 culture, as well. Students often nod thoughtfully when I tell them that; no one’s ever been able to argue otherwise. But this is a duty of sorts, a responsibility—we shouldn’t leave cultural production solely to programmers. Those of us who call ourselves ‘creatives’ can code, too; coding just isn’t really very scary.

Or it shouldn’t be.

Being able to publish our own content in apps that can be circulated on the Apple or Google App Stores should help students in English departments, whom I strongly believe have amazing material to share with the world, feel more confident about the value of their work. It should, right? Is the needed coding worth the effort? Some of my students have picked up from someone—not their professors, I hope—a startlingly fierce resistance to learning applied technologies. Which I hope to overcome, at least a bit, in my classes. We’ll see.

(By the way, the XCode with Swift is a joy to work in, every time. The Android Studio using either Java or Kotlin is a nightmare, every time. Should I tell them that?)

I welcome your advice.

Why We Must Teach Web Design and Development in English Departments

I have taught web design and development since the early 1990s, as part of my work in rhetoric programs at three research universities. Over that period I have participated in (and even led) award-winning digital humanities projects, worked on W3C committees which defined the protocols and standards for web content, and directed websites which have hosted more than 2.5 billion ‘hits.’ But in this past year I have heard, more than ever, students asking why web design is being taught in an English department?

In this post, I will argue why this question, when we hear it, must be taken seriously—why students, colleagues, and administrators need to understand how academic programs in rhetoric are (and should be) central to online cultural production, and why the tacit but unsubtle insults within these queries represent a manifest danger to the fields of rhetoric and English as a whole.

I have developed several answers to this question, with different advantages for specific audiences. Here I will discuss three I keep handy for conversational use, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and will argue that as a field we should consider future research to develop both disciplinary and institutional ‘best practices’ for describing digital composition to people who don’t yet expect digital expertise in our courses.

One answer I use, most useful to people who have traditional expectations of English departments, is to propose that English has always prepared students to produce culture. In the eighteenth century this involved writing logical treatises and early novels; in the nineteenth century it added writing poetry and popular essays; in the twentieth century it added short fiction and creative nonfiction. Today, a significant percentage of cultural production is created online, and it’s entirely appropriate that English departments continue to teach students how to create current genres. This answer is useful, though it implies that our digital rhetoric courses have the time to place digital work in historical contexts (something a bit difficult to accomplish in a 16-week course for students new to web technologies).

Another answer, which I offer to rhetorical scholars who don’t yet work often in digital, argues for our continued relevance to modern workplace needs. It suggests that the rise in rhetoric as a field since the 1980s has come from wanting English departments to support practical work, and that we can keep ourselves relevant to administrators and funding agencies by continuing to teach useful and practical skills. It cites the Bureau of Labor Statics findings that demand for technical writers is expected to grow at a rate of 12% in the decade 2020-2030, that technical writing is consistently rated by Forbes magazine among the best jobs in the U.S. in creative and media careers, and that demand for web developers will grow 13% over the decade 2020-2030. There is a clear need for people who enjoy doing this work, and English departments can provide our majors with skills in demand. This argument benefits from the very strong demand in a post-pandemic world for people who can produce information which suits distance employees. But this argument comes with the responsibility for our faculty and curricula to keep up with best practices in web design and development, which change with impressive rapidity.

Not all arguments for teaching web design have to be philistine, however. A third argument, one I personally find most persuasive in 2022, recognizes the fact that my current department has a highly diverse student population. We have a large number of adult students, many first-generation students; we have more women, trans, NB, and genderfluid students than any but one other department; our students represent more ethnically diverse communities than all but one department in our college. Suggesting that helping these diverse students master skills to create cultural products, and to help diverse voices represent themselves and their experiences to online readers/audiences meets with surprised reactions from audience who have heard my more pragmatic argument from the paragraph above. But of course it’s true, and my primary focus. My students love artistic and creative expression, and supporting students for whom the ability to contribute in this way is new usually meets with support from people otherwise unfamiliar with our students.

Teaching SVG images in a web design class.

But the consequence of all three of these arguments is that it places additional responsibility on digital rhetoric courses to actually teach creative expression, current technical standards, and actually be welcoming to diverse students. Adam Banks, in his 2015 CCCC keynote address, had an enormous impact on me when he suggested that we ‘promote’ traditional persuasive essays to the rank of ’emeritus’—and make room for new, diverse and traditionally-marginalized genres. But if I truly wish to encourage my colleagues to use such arguments to rethink our courses, I must also persuade that we must take seriously our students and the new content these student wish to bring online; this work, I will argue to anyone who wants to listen, has not yet been very adequately been addressed by existing literature in the field.

That’s what makes this so excitiing.

related links:

Teaching and Learning New Media

For decades, laypeople have believed that new media somehow improve themselves incrementally. Marc Prensky asserted in 2001 that young people (whom he called ‘digital natives’) would be naturally good with computers, and eventually bring digital expertise to all professions. Over time, the story went, professors (along with all other professionals) would be proficient with multimedia technologies. But that’s not what I’ve found.

It was a convenient self-delusion. It meant that professors didn’t have to learn, or teach, multimedia production. We told ourselves that students had somehow already learned practical skills, so we could focus on (both write and teach) ‘larger, theoretical issues.’ We could ignore the fact that computer technologies were revolutionizing document production, electronic publishing, and multimedia development and distribution. Those were just details. Details students somehow knew by generational instinct, so we didn’t need to teach it.

But none of that turns out to be true.

Because in the past twenty years, my students have not become better with computers than they used to be. They actually know far less. Yes, they can use mobile devices, websites and apps, but my average student knows less about coding than they did in 2002.

And we would have known that, if we’d thought about the question at all.

My home online teaching setup, 2020.

This isn’t just my experience. Neil Selwyn in 2009 published ‘The Digital Native—Myth and Reality,’ argues that the popular conception of youth as naturally talented with digital devices is profoundly flawed. Based upon his research at the University of London, Selwyn found that celebratory rhetoric motivated well-intentioned but false-to-fact desires for youth empowerment: ‘The digital native discourse as articulated currently cannot be said to provide an especially accurate or objective account of young people and technology.’ (370)

If students came to rhetoric faculty arguing that they were excellent professional writers because they’ve been making social media posts their entire youth, we’d be skeptical. We would suggest that courses in formal writing would help to discipline, professionalize, and make more sophisticated the sort of composition students can make. That, in fact, is the motivation for so many university general writing requirements.

But our universities often don’t offer corresponding requirements—indeed, we seldom even offer gen-ed courses in multimodal composition that would teach students web writing/production, professional multimedia or photographic editing, or interaction design for online content.

Since their earliest founding, departments of English have focused on teaching students to produce culture. In the past, these have meant teaching students to write poetry, short fiction, novels, and creative nonfiction.

But if I’m right, and online and multimodal content are more and more central to contemporary culture, and students aren’t innately skilled at producing these, then we need to develop systematic and curricular plans to teach these to our students.

Teaching my students how to light 4K video projects. (Don't actually light videos this way.)

Tech Comm Applications

What All Tech Comm Majors Should Learn in College, 2022 Edition

For a few years, I’ve maintained a list of applied technologies which I’ve recommended the students in our undergraduate Bachelor of Science in Technical Communication should learn, while they are still full-time students. It applies, usually less directly for our MA and PhD students as well, though they tend to have fewer courses in applied technologies.

Though not all of these are taught directly within courses in our program (or any I know of), the larger disciplinary perspectives in which these tools are useful are taught, and students can (and I believe should) explore these software/hardware packages whenever possible, as they learn to apply the larger lessons to particular applications. I personally wish more of these were taught directly in courses (though I understand why they aren’t).

This isn’t to say that students shouldn’t read rhetorical theory, or literature, or study grammar and speech communication. I’m a fervent advocate for the humanities. But in 2022 these include digital humanities perspectives, as well. And to be able to create those, students need to learn the tools of modern digital composition. And there are a lot.

So a few of my students last semester suggested that I share this list online, and invite comments or suggestions from colleagues around the world (who may have items to add or edit). So: here’s my 2022 list. I’ll look forward to any comments you may have!


  • Accessibility (Web Developer Tools, JAWS/VoiceOver, SiteImprove, Dragon, Dictate)
  • Backups (Time Machine, rsync, Git)
  • Data Analytics/Visualization (MS Excel, D3.js, Chart.js, JMP, R, R Studio, SPSS)
  • Digital Audio Editing (Audacity, Audition)
  • Digital Photography (Photoshop, Lightroom, GiMP)
  • Digital Video Recording (DaVinci Resolve, Premiere Rush, Premiere Pro)
  • Flowchart Software (Visio, OmniGraffle, Google Drawings)
  • Page Layout/Document Design (Acrobat, InDesign, Scribus, FrameMaker, DITA Open Toolkit)
  • Platforms (Android, iOS, iCloud, Google Drive, OneDrive, MacOS, Windows, Linux, Web Apps)
  • Presentation (MS PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides)
  • Project Management (Waterfall/Agile/Scrum Project Management, Git)
  • Structured Documentation (RoboHelp, Madcap Flare, OxygenXML, DITA Open Toolkit)
  • User Experience Design (Adobe XD, Figma, Camtasia, FaceTime, Skype, Webex, Zoom, Trello)
  • Vector Images (Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, SVG)
  • Web Design (Adobe Dreamweaver, WordPress, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, XML)
  • Web Development (PHP, Python, MySQL/MariaDB, SQLite, XML)
  • Web Libraries (AngularJS, Bootstrap, React, Electron, Xcode, Android SDK)
  • Writing/Collaboration Tools (MS Word 2020, Git/GitHub, Google Docs, Pages, Etherpad)

Desktop Applications

  • Document Design (Adobe Acrobat, Adobe FrameMaker, Adobe InDesign, Fonts)
  • Image Editing (Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, GIMP, SVG)
  • Video Editing (Adobe Premiere, Camtasia, DaVinci Resolve)
  • Documentation (Adobe RoboHelp, DITA Open Toolkit, Madcap Flare, oXygen XML)
  • Collaboration (Basecamp, Git, Slack, Webex, Zoom, MS Teams)
  • Web Design (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, Docker)
  • Word Processing (MS Word, OpenOffice Writer)
  • Software Development (Android SDK, XCode)
  • Data Science (Excel, R, R Studio, D3.is, Python)
  • Responsive Design (Adobe XD, Figma)
  • Presentation (PowerPoint, Prezi)
  • Web Browsers

Web Applications

  • Content Management (WordPress, Drupal, Plone, Confluence, Wikimedia)
  • Learning Management (Canvas, Moodle)
  • MRDS (MySQL, MariaDB)
  • User Surveying (LimeSurvey, SurveyMonkey)
  • Web Analytics (Matomo, Google Analytics)
  • Search (Solr)
  • Data Science (Jupyter Lab, R, Grafana)
  • Virtual Desktops (KASM)
  • Social Media (Mastodon, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, BuddyPress)
  • Multimedia (PeerTube, Plex, YouTube, ffmpeg)
  • E-Commerce (WooCommerce)
  • E-Libraries (Nextcloud, Kavita, Pyshelf, Paperless-NG, Calibre-web)
  • Collaboration (Etherpad, Google Docs, Office 365, Ethercalc)
  • Project Management (Redmine, Jira, Gitea, Bitbucket, Taiga)

Platforms (Hardware and Software)

  • Apple iCloud/Apps
  • Desktops
  • Google Drive/Apps
  • Laptops
  • Mobile (Android, iOS)
  • OSes (MacOS, Windows, Linux desktop, Linux command line)
  • Docker/Kubernetes
  • Microsoft OneDrive/Office 365 Apps
  • Backup (RAID, rsync, offline backups)
  • USB 3/3.1/3.2/4/Thunderbolt
  • Web Applications/Cloud Apps

Web Libraries

  • AngularJS
  • Bootstrap
  • ElectronJS
  • React