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.


My Dog Ate My Computer

In  “Learning to Write Publicly: Promises and Pitfalls of Using Weblogs in the Composition Classroom” Benson & Reyman make an interesting point:

“While blogs have the potential to reach a wider public audience, many students reported that they felt that the anonymity of writing with a screen name and the perceived sense of writing for friends and classmates, as opposed to a larger public audience, made thinking carefully about potential negative consequences for their writing irrelevant” (20)

Just be warned that blogging does not necessarily induce audience awareness. There are loopholes where students can use the internet as if they were writing in a private space.

Blogs should encourage two-way communication rather than one-way commenting and collaboration that wikis offer.

In “Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts” by Will Richardson, the first chapter talks about blogs which are a collaborative medium. At first, the internet was only used to share text and data. Then in 1993 came a period of people being able to read and write to the internet.

People use blogs for a variety of topics including personal passions to politics. People can also mix modes by posting photos and audio files. Even the Obama campaign was successful in 2008 because of the group forming ability that the internet has. However, education is slow to adapt these new changes.

How can we keep up? We are seeing, as Richard puts it, “A new model of journalism evolving in front of us” (4)

Journalists now include people in this participatory culture of fact checking the news so that journalists can write better. Children are “always on” (5) and they are building vast social networks with little or no guidance from adults. Students become fearless in posting their content online which is a definite change from how students used to be shy when writing anything in print.

Richardson says “It’s the conversations, the links, and the networks that grow from them afterward that really show us the profound implications for lifelong learning” (9)

I like the idea of lifelong learning. When you learn things in class, it doesn’t  just end there. Blogging is a way to continue on learning after the class ends.

Another interesting fact is that many schools have major filtering programs where people who write inspiringly and educationally about their work can be blocked off from student access. Even though blogs are open to a lot of people, a lot of it is also closed off too. There is also the issue of keeping students safe and issues with publishing names, writing responsibilities and we are obligated to teach students what is acceptable and safe.

Richardson says, “These teenagers use these sites [weblogs] more as social tools than learning tools, and their behavior is sometimes reckless” (20) We now as educators have an added responsibility.

I liked this quote:

“It drastically reduced the frequency of ‘I didn’t know we had homework’ and ‘That was due today?’ responses when my students didn’t do their work. I’d simply say it was on the blog” (21)

Now students can’t say, “My dog ate my computer!”

Blogging is a good way to archive learning. We have to learn how to evaluate blogs for accuracy and trustworthiness since anyone can write them. Some bloggers prefer to stay anonymous. We might want to find out the reputation of the blogger for credibility of the source.

Another interesting quote that differentiates blogging from writing a traditional essay:

“That’s not to say keeping a blog is all work and no play however. Don’t be afraid to include some posts that are totally personal or just for fun; your readers want to see the person behind the blog as well”

In the article, “Erasing Property Lines: A Collaborative Notion of Authorship and Textual Ownership on a Fan Wiki” by Rik Hunter, he says,

“The answer is that thankfully there are vastly more editors who want to make it right than those who want to make it wrong. When mistakes occur or vandals strike, the collaborative efforts of the group set it straight, usually very quickly” (56)

The edit histories usually prevent vandalism because you can undo the changes. I wonder how this can be applied to other aspects of life such as cheating in school and plagiarism.

Tryon in his article, “Writing and Citizenship: Using Blogs to Teach First-Year Composition” talks about how blog entries have mixed reception among academics and journalists. Blogging has the reputation of being used for political commentary. He says,

“Actually I have no idea how to make my own arguments except that I try to stick to the facts and I always admit when I’m wrong which fosters credibility in all future arguments” (129) and also

“Humorous forms of argument were often more successful than the professional discourse readers might encounter in other contexts” (130)

As you can see from the last two quotes these lines of thinking is not even imaginable in traditional academic genre. I think that blogging has expanded the way we reason now. We are more curious about author credibility and entertaining our audiences than ever before.

Using New Literacies as Quick Fixes: Blog it! Wiki it!

I feel that blogs have become the Band-Aid to the myriad of problems in freshman composition. Students not motivated? Use blogs! Students not grasping audience? Use blogs! Students not interested in what you’re assigning them? Use blogs! Because of this reliance and potential over enthusiasm for blogs, I myself have grown skeptical.

I valued Richardson’s (2010) detailed explanation of Blogs in the classroom because he’s right – blogs can be very powerful when used in the right way. As a new teacher, I find myself struggling to have students write for authentic and real audiences, besides myself. Writing individual papers only aimed at me makes them both boring and stagnant. Blogs seem like a good alternative.

If we use blogs, though, like any type of new literacy, we, as instructors, have to be careful about how we introduce it in the classroom. Benson & Reyman’s (2009) exploration of blogs in the classroom showed me the many pitfalls of using blogs. I think one of the best reasons to use blogs is because of its direct connection to audience. As Richardson comments, “the relevance of student work no longer ends at the classroom door” (27). Students are no longer just writing for each other and the teacher – the audience is now potentially the whole Internet world. With this larger audience comes a new responsibility for students. Their writing now has both purpose (since it’s actually being read) and responsibility (if people are going to read it, I should try). Blogs work for the type of meaningful writing we want students to do and for the way we want them to approach, anticipate, and write for an audience. However, as Benson & Reyman (2009) comment, “understanding of audience does not necessarily lead to a strong sense of the potential consequences for their public writing” (16).  I’ve been a part of many class blogs, have created my own class blog, and have worked with students on their blogs here at SF State. They all have very few hits. My own blog has had 156 visitors from the US and 21 from Russia and then 20 from Latvia. I would say my blog is pretty representative of the kinds of blogs that students will write. I didn’t do much connective writing, so maybe that had an effective on views to my site. However, when I Google some terms I talked about like race, class, gender, my blog does come.

The point of this example is to show that, really, people are not reading my blog.

Students in the Benson & Reyman class discussed how they really felt that they could say anything they wanted to on a blog because they “had a perceived sense of a private, exclusive audience when writing to the class blogs” (18). While the potential audience is potentially massive, the actual audience seems to be fairly small for these blogs. And the students perceive that, negating the value of writing for an audience that blogs encourage.

If students don’t think anyone read the blogs, are we promoting audience awareness? Or are we just assuming there is a wider audience and turning a blind eye?

Because of my jaded view of blogs, I was intrigued by the discussion of Wikis. My knowledge of Wikipedia was cursory before these readings. I use it all the time and I frequently encourage students to do so as well, but I didn’t get how it works. I believe writing can be powerful when it is a collaborative, social, and constantly in flux. So, in other words, when it mirrors Wikipedia. Students who “purposeful[ly] work [at] negotiating and creating truth” understand that their writing has to be valued to be kept on the Wiki – it has to have purpose, be articulate, add something to the conversation, synthesize material (57). In essence, what some of the core values of freshman composition are.

I am intrigued by the idea of having students work on creating a document together. This could be revising and reworking our notions of genre through the semester, or adding to a list on good thesis statements. Either way having a place where everyone can add, and everyone has agency to change, what we are discussing. iLearn has a pretty user friendly version of Wiki’s built in and I’m trying this out next week in my class.

If Compositionists have been so struck by blogs why have Wikis been given the wayside? Blogs provide a platform to publish and write to an (imagined) audience. Wikis also provide a platform to write to an imagined audience but also encourage collective revision.

I think part of it is our reluctance to let go of authorship in the classroom. Blogs maintain this because each student writes their own blogs. With wikis, collaborative writing and learning takes place meaningfully and thoughtfully. While we can track who adds what, the goal of the Wiki is for information to be revised and rethought together, not for everyone to have their own independent voice. As Hunter (2011) suggests in his study of World of Warcraft Wikis, wikis both “erase a sense of authorship” (45) and “individual contributions are deemphasized” (54). This is very interesting to our notions of how we teach writing in the classroom: as a very individualized, independent, and frequently isolated activity.

            Wikipedia has always been scorned in the classroom for its unreliability. But more people have access to making it reliable than something written by one person from the The Times or Wired. I think part of our hesitancy with Wikis is the lack of authority, specifically in regards to assessment. We typically assign each student a prompt, to be completed independently. When we assess, through feedback and/or a grade, we are responding to that specific student. We know they wrote the essay. With Wiki’s then, this individual writer becomes problematize. How do I evaluate a Wiki that every one adds to? What about individual grades? What if nobody adds anything to the Wiki because it is already pretty good? I foresee problems arising when students post something in a wiki because they have to, not because it furthers the discussion. With these questions aside, I do think that Wiki’s add a new dimension to the classroom that values collaboration and revision.

As I hop off the blog bandwagon, I hop on the Wiki bandwagon. Students don’t collaborate? Wiki it! Students don’t see their revisions as purposeful? Wiki it! Students aren’t grasping the exigency of writing? Wiki it!

New Media in Composition Classrooms

David Buckingham says in “Introducing Identity” that digital media shapes young people’s identities. I think that the internet makes it easier for people to create multiple identities.


In “Students Who Teach Us” by Cynthia L. Selfe talks about how composition teachers are slow to utilizing media texts in the classroom. New media is different from print text in that it increases interactivity and creates multiple literacies (seeing, listening, writing and reading)

People who are familiar with printed text may have a difficult time adopting the new media.

Here is an interesting site

Something that print text cannot offer is aesthetics and design along with information. New media, therefore, caters to a wide audience. Some interesting quotes are brought up in this article:

“New media texts now exist on William Blake, the Salem Witch trials, hip hop, the architectural history of Rome… among many other topics” (44)

Coverage of historical events is more accessible and convenient for the younger generation to get a hold of.

Also, “Imaginative texts percolates through the sub strata of composition classrooms in direct contrast to students’ laissez faire attitudes toward more conventional texts” (44) This means that there is more enthusiasm to learning. If teachers can utilize this enthusiasm, it would make for a dynamic curriculum.

The essay also talks about how students can be teachers as well, as they can teach the older generation of new computer capabilities. Rather than curriculum being teacher-centered, students can benefit from teaching their teachers new computer skills.

In Selfe’s “Becoming Literate in the Information Age” there is talk of increasing computer usage. Selfe says “writers might compose differently with computers but probably not better.” This is problematic because computers may not help people become better writers.

Two people’s lives were followed as case studies in Selfe’s article. Both of these people, Melissa and Brittney grew up in middle class families. The term “cultural ecology” was introduced. Selfe points out that schools are not the sole places where people gain access to digital literacy (644). From 1978-2003 personal computers slowly became commercially available into composition classrooms. In the 1970’s computer programming was introduced into classrooms. Britney was born into an era of internet and email. She grew up with computer as a child while Melissa taught herself how to use computers when they were first being used in the military. Britney says, “I appreciate when my teachers embrace technology” (660). She also says, “We do best at things we have a genuine interest in, not those that are spoon-fed to us.”

If English teachers can address new literacies in their classrooms, that would make a more dynamic way for students to learn.

These kids today–an opportunity for transformation of consciousness

In his 2009 Wired article on the “New Literacy” Clive Thomson warns us that “As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame.” Indeed, this perennial lament was echoed on January 18th of this year as AP educational writer Eric Gorski wrote that “A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.” The blame for this performance, however, is not lain at the feet of technology. One reason the article cites is that students simply aren’t required to write or read enough.

According to a January 7th The New York Times article, William H. Fitzhugh has published a print journal of selected high school essays for over two decades. He makes the claim that “Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” Further, he says that “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.” According to a survey cited by Mr. Fitzhugh, 95 percent of the teachers surveyed “said assigning long research papers was important, but 8 out of 10 said they never did because they had too little time to read and grade them.” Though Mr. Fitzhugh was forced take his journal online this year, while discontinuing the print version, he apparently saw no increased opportunity in this, beyond saving money, such as reaching a wider networked and involved audience.

In his article, Thompson highlights the work of Andrea Lundsford, who in her Stanford Study of Writing found that “Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom…” With web media students have found purpose and audience for their writing that classrooms have not been able to provide. However, as Will Richardson says in his book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, “as is often the case, education has been slow to adapt to these new tools and potentials.”

In his article, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” Walter J. Ong writes that “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” As well as making interior transformations, networked media is forging transformations of social conceptions of how students learn and build knowledge. If we accept that writing elevates consciousness by holding a mirror to thought process, we can also understand that this close examination of one’s thoughts is often met with anxiety and resistance. But just as the printing press provided a greatly expanded audience for those with a purpose for communicating, students now inhabit a world where increased sense of purpose and audience bring greater enjoyment to writing. And there is an immediacy that brings language back to the realm of conversation and community. This presents great opportunity for teachers to expand upon.

In order to learn, we must think, and we don’t know what we think until we try to express it. We end up having to ask ourselves a lot of questions. This is essentially the aim of educational writing. It is also what transpires in the networked community among its members. In group discussions, blogs, and wikis, others can comment on, or even edit our writing. A little collaborative learning might even take some of the load off the amount of written response that traditionally fell solely to the teacher, and who knows, perhaps a few more “pages” of writing could get assigned.

These are a Few of My Favorite Posts (Part II)

As I continue my synthesis of ideas from the class blog , I should mention that you all have written lots of great stuff about many subjects including games, podcasting, multimedia and so on, but I will ignore all that for now in favor of what supports, expands or challenges the ideas I have been developing about my own teaching methods which seem particularly relevant to teaching a face to face, textually based writing class with online support.

Continue reading

Greased Pig: Nailing our role as FYC instructors

Just when I think I have a grasp on what the role of the composition instructor is supposed to be, a new comment, article, blog posting, book chapter acts as a beckoning finger, a mental hyperlink meant to lure me from the comfort and safety of my own home page of understanding.

Richardson suggests that it is our job to teach safety and accountability to our students as we shepherd them through making educational use of participatory media. Sure, why not? If our main focus as FYC instructors is on not only writing, but also on improving the overall literacy of our students then making students aware of the effects of their own participation as well as the participation of others is absolutely a part of that.  In some ways we are just being asked to modify or expand upon pre-existing lessons on topics such as plagiarism, audience, voice, etc.

Richardson oversimplifies the divide between the techno-savviness of educators and their students — certainly how much divide can there really be between a 23 year old and the 18 year old high school seniors she is teaching?  And there do exist seven year olds who have never set a finger on an iPod or visited a website.  We must be careful to avoid ageist generalizations on both ends and keep our focus on which literacies are most relevant and how we can obtain or maintain our own relevance as educators.

But truly, does reporting from a camera phone or to a blog equate news that is anymore “true” or educational than the news that used to come through the phone tree of the community busy body? Even in the days before computers people who were socially literate knew that information from a known gossip could not necessarily be counted on, but should be questioned and examined in light of the possible motives behind passing on the information. I do buy, at some level that amateur reporting is in many ways more truthful, and less tainted with motive, than conventional reporting but I’m not exactly sure that the critical muscle to examine such things is so vastly different than those which we have been using all along. Teaching the type of examination necessary to determine what sources are and are not reliable really falls under the critical thinking umbrella (which we are asked to touch on in our teaching as well).

If we are meant to teach FYC students to be socially literate critical thinkers as well as readers, writers, editors, collaborators, publishers, reporters, viewers, designers, activists and composers, then that drastically changes our identity as a discipline and the things we need to know in order to be effective composition instructors. For me the challenge is exciting, and I am always open to reinterpreting my role. My partner teaches seventh grade Spanish and, several years ago was having behavior issues with many of her students. At that time I asked her, “What is the most important thing you can teach them in your class?” It wasn’t much having to do with learning Spanish – they could pick that back up freshman year of high school and be right back on track – it was more having to do with being a respectful class member, figuring out what the boundaries were in a junior high environment, etc. Once she let go of the fantasy that she alone was going to imbue them with the music of the Spanish language, she was able to relax and understand that her class, much like FYC is about exposure, not mastery.