Department of English

Margaret A Syverson

Associate ProfessorPh.D., 1994, University of California, San Diego

Associate Professor, Director of the Undergraduate Writing Center
Margaret A Syverson



Complexity theory, cognitive science, cognitive anthropology, learning and development


Margaret Syverson is the Director of the Computer Writing and Research Lab in the Division of Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches graduate level and undergraduate courses such as "Virtual Worlds," "Computers and Controversy," "Knowledge Ecology," and "Information Architecture" in well-equipped networked classrooms, where students have the opportunity to create Web sites, standalone hypertexts, multimedia projects, and MOO spaces (in text-based environments online). These classes also develop students' skills and experience with email, Web research, and real-time conferencing.  You can find information about Dr. Syverson and her recent classes at

The Online Learning Record, a portfolio based assessment system developed by Professor Syverson is used for student evaluation in all of her courses, and was the subject of a Carnegie Scholars project. Information about the Online Learning Record is available at  Professor Syverson's dissertation research, conducted at the University of California, San Diego, focused on the application of complex systems theories and distributed cognition in composition studies. Her recent book,The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition, was published by Southern Illinois University Press. She is Chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Language in Learning, and Editor of Computers and Composition Journal's online site. Her work on evaluating learning in MOOs and MUDs has been supported through a CAETI grant. Recently, her collaborative online composition Worlds Fair received an Innovations in Instructional Technology Award from The University of Texas.


E 388M • Information Architecture

36065 • Fall 2014
Meets MW 200pm-330pm FAC 7

Information Architecture

This course investigates the cultural, cognitive, and rhetorical dimensions of information architecture as it applies to academic professions. Most professional knowledge workers are awash in a tsunami of information and struggling to stay afloat. Edward Tufte maintains that there is no such thing as information overload, only poor information design.

Information architecture is an emerging field that includes aspects of composition, rhetoric, design, cognitive science, information sciences, computer science, mathematics, and social sciences. As computer technologies have expanded the possibilities for creating, organizing, storing, representing, and communicating information, the sheer quantity of information exchanged has exploded. The new field of information architecture (or “informatics” in a current program proposal at UC Irvine) studies this dynamic process, develops systems to help people better manage it, and plans for changes projected in how information is developed and organized.

Theorists currently in the field, including Richard Saul Wurman, Jakob Nielsen, Kevin Mullet, Darrell Sano, and Edward Tufte argue that design, including typography and page design, use of graphics, and organizational structure are crucial to the delivery of information in ways that potential audiences find useful. These elements are often left to editors or publishers in formal publishing situations, or executed poorly in popular media and online communications. Yet they can determine whether information can be easily accessed, apprehended, and interpreted. Similarly, information archives are left in the hands of librarians whose experience and expertise may vary widely from expert to little or no training or preparation. Even well-trained librarians, however, may be ill-equipped to manage the proliferation and dynamic transformation of new media, modes, and genres of work, including web sites, multimedia compositions, collaborative constructions that cross continents and disciplinary boundaries, and online virtual worlds. There are many systems, from library catalogues to Web search engines, to research databases now in use to gather, store, and manipulate information, yet we still often feel overwhelmed, ill-informed, and lost in dealing with them. Wurman has termed our general apprehension “information anxiety.”

While a great deal of work has been done in areas of information science, library science, interface design, and so on, we believe that little attention has been paid to the deeply rhetorical nature of information architecture, particularly in online environments. This course will look at the cultural and cognitive production, organization, representation, and distribution of knowledge as activity.

The objectives for students include the following:

  • Students will be introduced to a new field of study and its concepts, methods, and practices.
  • Students will explore cultural, cognitive, and rhetorical implications of diverse information structures, including hypertext, text-based virtual reality, the Web, and databases.
  • Students will experiment with design for gathering, organizing, and presenting information.
  • Students will develop their own projects based on existing theoretical and methodological challenges in this field. 

Required texts:

Course Reader

There will be a list of recommended texts from which students will make selections for presentations and project work.

Evaluation will be via the Online Learning Record, portfolio-based assessment.

Assignments and class format:

Ground-up information architecture for survival in professional and academic ecosystems:

The project for the semester: Design your own infosphere: a way to manage the flow, storage, communication, and transformation of information in your own lived ecosystem. Conduct and write up a case study detailing this process. This process will require a great deal of observation, reflection, and research. Much of this research will be difficult because our own accommodations are sometimes invisible to us. Alternatively: do this with someone else as your research subject/client.

Part 1: An inventory of information types, media, and sources that participate in your ecosystem right now. Don’t forget the human resources! A second inventory of what should be part of your information ecosystem. This work should be done collaboratively, to help stimulate your thinking about it.

Part 2: The current state of the ecosystem: including what gets left out, what gets ignored or dismissed, what takes greater or lesser priority. Also included, the preferences of the user (you): greater or lesser order and systematicity, willingness to maintain a system, competing or conflicting life commitments, greater or lesser dependence on/enthusiasm for using technology

Part 3: Categories of purpose. What classes of information are needed? What roles are they associated with? Be sure the classes are distinct enough to be useful. “News” is a generic term that probably should be broken down into categories like: news about the world, news about my discipline, personal news, news about my department, and so on. What is the quality of life you aspire to?

Part 4: Audience: Who else is involved as an audience or provider for the information flows? What is their preferred medium for getting and/or receiving information? What structures do they need or prefer to help them interpret and apply the information?

Part 5: Pace and timing: what are the dynamics of information flows in different classes? You may discover that you are a person that prefers to check email as it arrives, once or twice a day, or, as in my Dad’s case, once or twice a year. You may read a newspaper daily, visit the library twice a week, write a paper once a semester. The pace may change during times of crisis or high activity: for example, before an exam. What are the dependencies among different kinds of information, different situations?

Part 6: A review of models: libraries, museums, air traffic control, city planning, ecology, music orchestration, choreography, architecture, etc.

Part 7: What structures, technological or physical, can help gather, organize, maintain, and manage the information flows? Of course, this is no guarantee of stress-free information management, but rather, how can you establish a system that fits your own ecosystem and supports your larger goals? What can be done to support the transformation of information into wisdom?

We will also look at your work during class time in in-class workshops.

Process: Each phase of this work will cover two weeks of classes, organized as follows:

Week 1: Small group discussion around projects (M)

                Focus on technology (W)

Week 2: Readings and disciplinary considerations (M)

               Presentation workshops/check in: group inquiry process  (W)

Technological component:

1. The Learning Record as a model of information architecture development and evolution

2. Brainstorming tools: Novamind, Tinderbox, Omnigraffle

3. Archiving tools: EndNote, FileMaker Pro, MacJournal, file structures (File Don’t Pile)

4. Presentation tools: screen formatting, the web, accessibility

5. Social tools: blogs, wikis, myspace, Google groups

6. Workflow tools: GTD process, Fasttrack schedule, Now Up to Date, Actiontastic, Quicksilver, news aggregators, etc.

7. Integration of systems: putting the pieces together technologically

8. Project presentations (t and th)

E388M Information Architecture Texts

Case Study Research: Design & Methods,

Robert K. Yin



Information Architecture For The World Wide Web,

Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville



Notes On The Synthesis Of Form,

Christopher Alexander



Visual Display Of Quantitative Information,

Edward Tufte



Thinking in Systems,

Donella Meadows

ISBN: 978-1-60358-055-7


Plus online sources as listed on the class wiki


E 388M • Minds, Texts, And Technology

35810 • Fall 2012
Meets MW 330pm-500pm FAC 10

What do readers, writers, and texts have in common with the human immune system, the economics of the stock market, the rise and fall of a pre Columbian city state, or a ship's navigation crew? Recent interdisciplinary research in complex systems and cognitive science has suggested some intriguing possibilities. This seminar will explore some of the foundational theories emerging from this research and their potential for informing English and composition studies. The course introduces concepts in situated and distributed cognition, activity theory, distributed cognition, and complexity theory to establish a theoretical framework for analyzing writing situations, as a way of testing the applicability of these theories for literature, rhetoric and composition. One goal of this seminar is to help students define and develop working bibliographies, which are somewhat different from annotated or "works cited" type bibliographies. For this purpose, students will write regular responses to the assigned readings on the class wiki. They will prepare a short presentation to the class on a text chosen from the recommended reading list. Students will also be responsible for developing an academic project suitable for publication in print or online.

E 388M • Knowledge Ecologies

35610 • Fall 2011
Meets MW 330pm-500pm PAR 104

In an information-saturated world, we find ourselves scrambling and overwhelmed. Much of the information that washes over us is useless, some of it is dead wrong, and all of it creates the phenomenon known as "information anxiety," the desperate attempt to keep on top of the information flood. Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion about "information design" or "information architecture," the use of careful design to help manage and navigate large complex sets of information.

But information design is only a part of the solution. The real issue is how information becomes knowledge, and how it connects with existing knowledge to expand or reorganize what we know and do. Knowledge is information in use, applied in specific contexts for particular purposes. We inhabit various "knowledge ecologies," which range in scale from the culture as a whole, through media such as newspapers and television, to shared friendships, a classroom, a writing desk with all of its tools and resources. Most of these ecosystems involve people; knowledge "artifacts" such as books, web sites, and other media; technologies; social structures; and environmental influences. They are dynamic, constantly changing systems, through which information flows and knowledge is constructed. Knowledge that is constructed is directed back into the system to inform the development of more knowledge; and all of this knowledge is part of how activity gets accomplished in a particular environment, whether it is the operating room of a hospital, a second-grade classroom, a high-tech business, or a government agency.

Students in this seminar will investigate real-world knowledge ecologies, track information flows and activity in these systems, and design projects to help support emerging knowledge construction in knowledge ecosystems.

Probable texts

Thinking in Systems, a Primer. Donella Meadows

Cognition in the Wild, Edwin Hutchins

The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society, Kenneth Boulding

Ecologies of Knowledge: Work and Politics in Science and Technology, Susan Leigh Star

Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart, Bonnie Nardi

Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson

Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, Alex Wright


1. A major research project leading to a publishable article or composition in text, multimedia, website, wiki, or other online medium, project to be negotiated with instructor. This project will be completed in stages:

    a. A project proposal of two pages

    b. Observational field research in a knowledge ecosystem: an office, classroom, a hospital unit, a non-profit organization, for example.

   c. Report of recommendations for the benefit of the system.

   d. The final presentation as article or composition, suitable for publication or conference presentation.

2. Regular digital presentations on the research project.


Evaluation is via the Learning Record, a portfolio‑based system fully described on the web at  Students construct and submit a midterm Learning Record and a Final Learning Record composed of samples of their work, observations, and interpretations of their own development on the basis of five dimensions of learning.


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