Why Stop at Textual Writing? The Good and Challenges of Visual Composition

At the end of Selfe’s chapter “Towards New Media Texts,” she provides a few assignments instructors can test drive in their classes.  One of them happens to be a visual argument, and the assignment I administered as a GTA to my freshmen composition class last semester had the same name.  Students created a visual argument in which they had to read an op-ed, position themselves for or against what the op-ed’s author was arguing, and create a flyer using words and images that illustrated their argument in response to the author’s argument.  This was my little take on “they say/I say” but instead of having students do a more formal paper, I wanted students to play with audience and purpose and do something more visual.  Students were allowed to use images on the internet to help them build their flyer, or they could take a stab at drawing.  Even though this assignment had a cover memo component in which they did an analysis of their own work, I think it was a great assignment that gave the students an opportunity be creative, and their having to work with images, color, and text gave them an extra layer of engagement.

If Wysocki describes visual composition as “rhetorical,” I would argue, then, that new media composition is indeed very engaging (172).  With a bounty of tools then just the alphabet and black ink, students can certainly up their rhetorical skills by playing with and composing a new media work.  My students had to create a flyer that was geared towards an audience, and they had a specific purpose.  This may be presumptuous of me to say, but I think students have more than enough practice with rhetorical writing using just text.  In fact, they have worked with text their whole life.  Besides, throwing in color and images and asking them to compose a work where text and images have a relationship with each other for a rhetorical purpose forces them to think in a new critical way.  Just as they can go in many directions to create a rhetorical text, I think adding images and color gives them more options but they have to be pickier about what to use when they are composing.

I may have described this vision, but after students have turned in their works of art and it’s time for us to sit down, grading and assessment will be the challenging part.  How do we assess what might just be a subjective composition in an objective manner?  Sorapure encourages us to look at the elements of a student’s composition and how they work with each other instead of as a whole.  However, I think we need to do both.  Looking at the way the elements work together to do something shows that we’re looking for whether or not the student composer tried to build a cohesive relationship amongst the elements to create meaning rather than just to make the work look pretty or cool.  Assessing the composition as whole forces us to question its purpose.  That is, is the work just for show, or is the composer trying to do something deeper than having us admire their work for its aesthetics?  Of course, we can prevent the “for show” part by establishing parameters, but maybe even with parameters we’ll still have a hard time grading new media compositions.

Selfe emphasizes that visual literacy is another area students need to be adept in so that they can continue critically engaging with their world.  I say, however, that we need to tread carefully.  We are taught to be immersed and know the ins and outs of a text in order to be well-versed enough to teach it.  This is the same with visual literacy, which is a challenge even though we’re consuming visual media day after day on our devices.

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One comment on “Why Stop at Textual Writing? The Good and Challenges of Visual Composition

  1. Michelle, I’m glad I was going back over our blog to see if I had missed anything interesting, and I’d have to say here it is! Glad I read this post, don’t know why I didn’t read it before. Anyway, it totally foreshadows the Shipka text and all our posts. I love the idea of a visual analysis/response to an op/Ed reading. I think I want to play with something like this. Mi have done the inverse- a written analysis on a visual narrative. I imagine that it would be great fun reading all the cover memos- how do students rationalize their visual analyses! Thanks!

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