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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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.

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