How do we evaluate new media compositions?

Last week, my Writing and Technology class experimented with how using new media can enhance the meaning of a text, or confuse the meaning of the text.  On whatever program we chose, we had to type out a quote twice, and then alter its meaning with visual effects; this entailed font style, size, color, picture, and anything else that was visual.  One of our alterations was supposed to enhance or reinforce the meaning as much as possible.  The other was supposed to contradict or conflict with the meaning of the quote.  I have to admit, this activity reminded me of that nifty little mobile game Draw Something, where users are given a word that they have to draw, and their opponent/friend must guess what they drew. 

The cognitive aspects of gameplay involve the interpretation of word(s) that the game gives the user, using lines and colors to illustrate the concept, and then having somebody else guess the word.  Depending on the user, it may be really easy to guess the word or very difficult.


This is an example of where the image and the word have a strong, clear relationship.  Seriously, this is an awesome picture of the Riddler.  They even added in shadowing on the face.


This is an example of where the meaning of the word contains no connections.  I don’t even know what this person was trying to draw – maybe a pile of poop

The main point that I’m trying to make here is that images and texts together can make a variety of meanings, either intentionally or not.  While the writer/drawer/user can influence the meaning of their work with certain images, colors, etc., it is up to the reader/viewer to establish meaning by analyzing the relationship between the word and text.  In Draw Something, when the player guesses right, they see the word in conjunction with the image, along with some congratulatory symbol.  Guess wrong, and the game alerts the user that they failed to guess the word and reveals the answer.  The quality of the work of one person and the other person’s ability to interpret determine the meaning of a text/image/both. 

Isn’t this one of the main goals for composition instructors?  To teach students how to communicate an idea clearly and visually (usually with words), as well as understand the ideas of others?  If a student can communicate an idea to another student effectively, then shouldn’t they be in a good place?

Lisa Gerrard, a composition scholar and an advocate for technology in the classroom, would love to have this type of activity in every composition class.  In her essay, “Writing for Multiple Media,” Gerrard gives an overview of how various technologies, especially computer and Web 2.0, can enhance student learning.  Gerrard would define our modest activity as an act of multimedia composition, which combines text with interactivity, visual elements (pictures, videos), and audio (music, sound effects).[1]  Gerrard is absolutely enthralled by how these technologies will revolutionize student learning and student writing in the classroom, such as social media, online writing labs, and blogs.  However, Gerrard’s analysis of new media in the classroom seems gimmicky.  Sure, English departments can bring in this technology and use different methods to teach students new aspects of composition and rhetoric.  However, Gerrard assumes that every student will pick up on these positive aspects and view technology in the classroom as a powerful ally for learning.  Most students are already exposed to these technologies outside of the classroom, and probably know more about operating these technologies more than their professor.  She does not really explore how students may negatively react to having computers or laptops to the classroom.  (Did anybody tell her that school also makes things that are usually fun, not fun?) 

Although Gerrard has extremely positive views about technology in the classroom, she and Madeleine Sorapure bring up the issue of evaluating and assessing these types of assignments.  Traditional teachers “trained in literature, linguistics, or rhetoric, are far more comfortable in a verbal medium than a visual one”.[2]  Sorapure similarly argues that in order to evaluate these technologies, “we need to attend to the differences between digital and print compositions in order to be able to see accurately and respond effectively to the kind of work our students create in new media”.[3]  However, I wonder how does one evaluate a visual or auditory component of something?  Sorapure suggests that the best strategy focuses on how images, texts, and sounds are brought together, and if the execution is effective.  She uses the terms “metaphor and metonymy” to describe how students produce meaning in a multi-modal work.  Metaphor refers to the substitution of one thing for another, to convey a certain meaning.  Metonymy refers to the process of combining modes together to create a specific meaning (like music to a poem = song).  These two forces help the writer/user create the overall meaning of the work.

While Sorapure raises an interesting view of how to evaluate these types of texts, her multi-media text does not always contain a clear relationship between text and other visual forms.  If you visit her URL and read her article through the interactive, flash version, the window takes you to a home page of sorts.  From here, you can click on the different headings of the paper to access this information.  In the background, there seems to be an old church or university with black statues, standing on a lawn outside of some architecture, showing signs of torment or despair.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of the connection between assessing students and this background.  If it’s a university, then this appears to be a cheap connection between academic work and academic institution.  As you click on different headers, the background pans to surrounding areas of the home background, but again, still make sense.  For example, “the problem of assessment” link pans over the roof, as a mini-slideshow pops up, containing the text of her paper.  The other headers make similar transitions and animations.  The use of media at this point just seems very gimmicky.  This is the fear that I developed when reading Gerrard’s essay; the inclusion of images and technology do not automatically make writing better or more attractive.  Instead, in Sorapure’s case, the extra stuff seems superfluous and pointless.   The texts and images do not seem to be a clear connection, and I’m not sure what meaning I’m supposed to make most of the time.  The text seems detached from the background.  Furthermore, whatever illustrations she does incorporate directly into the argument, she also incorporates to her pdf, so there’s nothing radically “new” or revolutionary in the flash version.

She also tries to incorporate a looping sound bit of people conversing, which also seems like an easy, cheap move to suggest that her studies and texts are part of a larger conversation (if that is the meaning I was supposed to derive from that.)

This complicates how we’re supposed to assess students’ compositions in new media.  While Sorapure’s actual text was engaging and clear, the visual and auditory components interfered with the meaning.  Does this mean that she should be graded lower or evaluated as a weaker communicator than someone who only uses paper?  I’m not sure. 

I’m all for incorporating technology in the classroom, and having students utilize media and other technologies they’re familiar with to enhance learning.  However, technology cannot be reduced to a cheap parlor trick to raise visual aesthetics.  Students need to understand how new media can create meanings that text alone cannot, and what this means when we do try to communicate our ideas.     

[1] Lisa Gerrard, “Writing in Multiple Media”

[2] Gerrard, 442.

[3] Madeleine Sorapure, “Between Modes: Assessing Student New Media Compositions,”


One comment on “How do we evaluate new media compositions?

  1. That was a pretty pleasant read.

    As for Sorapure- I had a similar complaint about the multimedia presentation used, however I had come up with a slightly different theory. You seem to be saying that Sorapure used the multimedia features for no reason, but I speculate that she made many of her strangest decisions due to the limitation of the program she chose. A very old version of flash isn’t going to do anybody favors. Flash is a terrible interface for presenting text, working best in very limited situations, due to the extreme restrictions involved with the program. The odd way of presenting text was due to the limitations in flash display settings, which led to needing transition screens, which led to that weird church picture. I suspect that if Sorapure was asked to produce this essay using web technology, they would be able to put together something noticeably more sophisticated and clean- and depending on the level of assistance they possibly have, in HTML5. Which is to say- maybe we do have to just jump into crappy uses of technology until the consumer tech develops to a level that everyone can use it to produce quality products?

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