Elements out of their Context

This week’s articles focus on the disparity that arises when composition classes transition to incorporate new media, and how the lack of appropriate modes of assessment fail to meet the accompanying transition from traditional print to newer digital platforms.   Anne Wysocki concentrates on the visual image in her dense piece titled “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty,” while Madeline Sorapure details the need for assessment with varied forms of digital technology in “Between Modes: Assessing Student New Media Compositions” that includes Web sites, images, video, audio and text altering software.  The two articles share a similar desire to find alternative ways of evaluating student work that takes advantage of the multimodal landscape twenty-first century students inhabit.

Both articles also look at form and content, but suggest different avenues in executing an approach. Wysocki is frustrated at the formal tools available to discern art, which separates form from content, stating “these approaches assume a separation of form from content, but they emphasize form in such a way that ‘content’ can be unremarkably disembodied” (149).  Wysocki seeks to find an approach that “builds” from “community” and works within the construct of the  “particular” and the “messy” as opposed to the distancing that the formalist approach that we all inherited, and to some degree, internalize.  Conversely, Madeleine Sorapure’s article suggests that as compositionists we critique what we know best, using tropes such as metaphor and metonymy as our guideposts.  Sorapure proposes separating content from form by extension in examining her student projects to demonstrate her model.  Sorapure reveals that through alternative forms to print, i.e. music, video, and image, and through re-conceptualizing the original source, we see “elements out of their contexts” (11), which then allows students an opportunity to show us something new, and perhaps unexpected.

I must admit that the subject matter of both articles initially intrigued me – essentially searching for a system of assessment rules for the non-written aspects of student work – but ultimately frustrated me for different reasons.  Wysocki sets out to figure out why she feels both excited and repulsed by the image of the naked woman in the New Yorker advertisement.  I applaud her methodical, trenchant approach to demonstrate how old forms of visual evaluation do not allow for the observer to respond more personally with the piece, or to view the object as more than the sum of its parts within the composition as a whole.  However, I felt as though Wysocki’s article was more of a mash-up of Art History lesson mixed with an Anthropological investigation as to how to approach the visual representation.  And Sorapure’s method is interesting but proves tiring as well as limiting in approaching student work with the narrow measurements of “metaphor” and “metonymy”. If we assign students visual, digital representation as part of their written work, then, I feel, we should also assess that work.

I still come back to the role that we serve, which is teaching students composition technique, strategies, reading approaches, critical thinking, engagement with text (yes, this can include visual mediums) and the myriad of ways to execute this goal.  While, I find many of the examples put forth by Wysocki and Sorapure to be very good, and most likely assist with generative writing, such as manipulating text with images; I still come away thinking that some students may not be able to express themselves in this new visual way. Are we then providing a disservice to those students within Composition Studies?  I do believe that incorporating some of these practices in the classroom can be useful; to assist in sparking creativity and to shift students from passive receptors of knowledge, to more active writers and thinkers.

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2 comments on “Elements out of their Context

  1. Like you, the subject matter of both articles intrigued me. I was especially taken by Wysocki’s analysis revealing the cultural and historical assumptions underlying the assumption that coherence, unity, order, and so on are universal criteria in assessment. I am reminded of the current traditional valuation of form over content, which Sharon Crowley in her marvelous book, The Methodical Memory, points out emphasizes “the disinterested presentation of facts.” This is the emphasis on objectivity that dominated modernism and which postmodernism has deemphasized. I am also reminded of Ken Macrorie, that original expressivist compositionist, who emphasizes the interdependence of subjectivity and objectivity, of self and other, in good writing, comparing it to the two sides of a Moebius strip, which from one point of view look like different sides but which also can be seen as running into each other, there being no place where one side ends and the other begins.

    Maybe what is happening is that the pendulum in Western culture swung too far in one direction (universalism, Truth, objectivity) and then needed to swing back toward the center to balance that approach with compensating opposites. Maybe it’s the story of composition, too–cognitive approaches followed by social ones, emphasis on form followed by emphasis on meaning, emphasis on text followed by emphasis on multimodal communication.

  2. There are so many questions about the disservice to students in composition studies that surround the one that you are asking in your post. I am left with remembering my personal struggles with mathematics…which appeared to me as a bunch of symbols on a board, pictures I could not decode.

    I think we run a very fine line here with presenting image as potential text, and then text as image. It is almost as if we are asking students to take on yet another discipline on top of composition studies. How much expectation is too much in terms of aesthetics and the vocabulary needed for academic expression under these circumstances? I do not necessarily think that it is fair to place such requirements on students inside the composition classroom where we are supposed to be teaching them to read and write, not create what is essentially textual/visual art across multiple platforms. Should their grades an success in college depend on the ability to do the types of activities that Wysocki presents in her material…or Sorpure for that matter?

    I think there are students that will “miss” the entire point, and it will be very hard to “teach them into it.” Do we as instructors even have the skills, by taking one digital literacy class, to be competent in this arena? My tendency is to lean towards doubt on this matter.

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