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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Hot or Not: Invisible Transgressions in Composition(s)

I was absolutely thrilled to be assigned this week’s topic, as I have long been fascinated about form and content, or the idea of form being content (a comment I made that Kory so brilliantly rephrased into a more eloquent form — go figure!), and how might we teach it. After all, integrated reading and writing is nearly everyone’s Kool-Aid and the general attitude (and I say this, very generally) is that we can’t separate reading and writing processes because they are symbiotic; in that manner, form and content are likewise entwined. I’m today’s Jim Jones and I wish to highlight the complex relationships and challenges that instructors of composition must surmount in order to spread the gospel of visual literacy, and situate ourselves as druids/priests/brothers/sisters/moderators in the cult of new media texts.

Wysocki’s article “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” takes an interdisciplinary approach to the question of visual appeals and how they might present themselves in the various visual compositions with which we are confronted. She examines graphic design texts, art theory, and even our homeboy, Kant (who, I am convinced, along with Nietzsche are indispensable in every humanities-related field), as sources of inspiration and as possible ways to “decode” and inscribe values to the semiotic challenges that visual texts present to us as readers, viewers, and consumers of “texts” — the audience.

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^^_____ Take a look at exhibit A. What are your impressions of this image? Which alphabetic words come to mind? What concepts? What sort of feelings does this visual composition evoke?

…..

……..

Now consider the complete advertisement below:

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How does the entire advertisement change our perception of it? To what extent, do you think? As discussed in class and emphasized in the reading (Selfe 70), this is a postmodern culture in which binaries have been disregarded (therefore, we should not pit form against content), and so we can see how alphabetic text/numbers and pictures are manipulated for a specific purpose.

If we were to consider this visual composition as just a “text” isolated and limited to its compositional qualities — its form — how would we be able to evaluate the underlying social, cultural, and historical values of this piece? If we can read traditional, alphabetic texts and cut straight to the content, why are we not affording visual compositions the same consideration of its content, in other words, doesn’t the form itself — the placement, the contrast, the lighting, the angle, even the proportion/ratio of the sandwich vis-à-vis (no pun intended… well, OK, perhaps a little bit) lipsticked, (blow-up) dolled-up model, convey messages and ideas without any alphabetic text. Throw in the alphabetic text, and you have a complete “package” (oh, no, I’m on a pun spree), which brings us back to a tension that Wysocki highlights repeatedly in her article: communication. We are analyzing and composing vials of “communications,” little repositories in which meaning is bottled up and contained, waiting to be uncorked by the audience (OK, OK, no more sexual puns).

However, how do we interrogate this fictionalized “reality” and how do we take this “visual grammar” and go beyond form (or rather, refiguring it) the way many of us have learned how to do with traditional, print-based texts during our educational careers? We know what to do with giant blocks of monolithic texts. And yet we separate form and content in visual “texts,” something that Wysocki regards as a dangerous practice and one that allows us to perceive “content” (in the case of the “Peek” ad, p. 148 as well as the above Burger King ad) in an “unremarkably disembodied” manner, one that in itself encourages the objectification and dehumanizing of said subjects in these Photoshopped, visual compositions, and works “against helping students acquire critical and thoughtful agency with the visual” (149) because a strict emphasis on form cannot account for what Wysocki terms, all the “reciprocal communication” in the work.

Selfe’s article “Toward New Media Texts: Taking Up the Challenges of Visual Literacy,” naturally raises the next question that I am certain many of us have asked ourselves as we plan(ned) our courses and are asking ourselves as we are learning how to teach writing and maintain its relevance an age where just about everything is intertextual, interwoven, and intersectional, including the very nature of composing “texts” themselves or rather, texts as artifacts of constructed meaning. We just don’t know how to approach them. As a field we have focused on alphabetic texts, and as we can see from Wysocki’s article (and the example advertisement I provided) that such adherence is outdated and perhaps even obdurate in the face of practical realities (72). But of course we would do so, as we are just comfortable with alphabetic texts. We feel confident that we can teach it because we ourselves have “developed a comfortable, stable intellectual relationship. We know… how to approach a book or non-fiction essay… we have developed many strategies for reading and understanding such texts, for analyzing and interpreting them, for talking about them” (71).

Many of us, I am certain, are cooking up our technoliteracy narratives this afternoon, evening (and tomorrow morning?). In those very narratives, I would expect some discussion of this topic, if even in an oblique manner. Based on the forum posts I read a couple of weeks ago, it seems many of us feel a need or pressure or expectation to teach visual literacy, yet so few of us feel intellectually and occupationally equipped to do as much,  and in no small part due to the fact that “many of these technologies… are thus unevenly distributed in schools along the axis of material resources” as Selfe claims (71). Both Selfe and Wysocki, echo a post-Saussurean obsession with a transcendent, floating meaning determined by sociocultural contexts. So how should we position all of this? As an interchange of “symbolic instantiations of the human need to communicate” (74).

Yet how does communication occur in a vacuum? It doesn’t. Wysocki writes about graphic design and its ethos: “[graphic design] aligns the values behind many of the formal principles taught in the texts [she has] discussed… with the political and economic structures of industrialization, structures many of us find problematic” (158). Soyoung-man-eating-banana-multi-racial-36025215und familiar? It should, if we read Ohmann’s article. We simply cannot escape the power dynamics and structures that permeate the various compositions to which we expose our students. The “monopoly capital,” in tandem with the postwar intellectual coterie, has continued to work from and support a top-down model in which those who wield power determine how the masses “consume” content. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect the above Burger King ad to depict a man doing the same thing, would we? Although, allow me to remind you, there are many men who would do the very activity the article implies but does not come out and say (all right, last bad pun, I promise). Yet such an ad would be considered controversial, perhaps even transgressive — why?

Expanding our thoughts beyond alphabetic literacy to include new media is perhaps the perfect juncture to overthrow this pyramidal dissemination of knowledge, meaning, and the “old school” compositional skill sets that determine the way (or non-way) we prepare our students for the critical thinking tasks in today’s world.

With our instantaneous, almost ubiquitous access to information and collaboration, and the dialogue that is brewing and of which we are a part by virtue of reading and discussing such concepts in class and on this blog, we owe it to ourselves and our students to find some way to sharpen our own multimodal literacies and to gain the confidence and comfort needed with these forms (and the way they deliver content) in order to successfully integrate them in our classrooms and teach the habits of mind that are relevant not only under the auspices of the institution, but in the present. So to that top-down crap, I say bottoms up (cue tasteless “Peek” ad)!

And with that, it’s time for my Kool-Aid: a bottle of Anchor Steam and a tablespoon of DayQuil.

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Some Notes (and Questions) about New Media Activites

In my class (first-year composition) next week, I’m dedicating all three days to visual rhetoric to try out some of the things I have gathered from various readings and discussions with people. My class is between formal assignments and I want to take a break from all the essay writing they have been doing. Plus they are going to need this visual rhetoric background later on in the course for something else. While trying to create a lesson plan, I searched through the activities included at the end of Wysocki’s “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” (Writing New Media) since I was reading it anyway, but I felt resistant and came up empty. I think that many of these activities are not accessible because they require a lot of planning and scaffolding. Sometimes they include multiple components that are completed over a larger series of classes or they require a certain skill set from my students that I can’t help them with. Some of them also seem to require a certain class “theme” or at least more attention to a certain “theme” or subject.

I know the author’s state that the activities can be adapted, but I’m having trouble with that. So of course after I had this reaction, I had to kickstart my reflection process, as I’ve been trained to do, and think about why I feel this way when I (think) I am eager and willing to include visual rhetoric and new media in my classroom. Am I too lazy, or intimidated, or scared to put in the effort? Did I not give myself enough time to think about what I want to do? Am I not creative enough? Do I feel unqualified? Do I think my students can’t handle it? I find myself falling back on viewpoints and excuses that the authors in this book tell us (teachers) not to have, and then I feel guilty and frustrated.

Since I feel this way, Cynthia L. Selfe in “Toward New Media Texts,” tells me that I should start with visual literacy, so I think great…problem solved! Then I flip the page and look at her activities, and again I feel kind of defeated because they involve some larger lessons, a lot of  planning, and a good chunk of class time, which starts a whole new round of self-reflection. So what is the problem? Right now, I think it might be that I didn’t leave enough time to plan. I can’t just haphazardly throw together a visual rhetoric lesson at the last minute, or if I do I’m just going to have to accept that the lesson won’t be as productive as it can be. I’m starting to think that visual rhetoric is not something you can just include one day out of fifteen weeks, and claim you are pro-visual rhetoric. Of course it’s a start, but I think it needs to be more deeply embedded in a curriculum to  allow  for a series of  effective class discussions and homework assignments. Maybe this whole thought process is what Wysocki and Selfe’s are arguing in the first place.

I’m still going to go through with my “visual rhetoric week,” but when I design my next class I need a better approach then dedicating a week to visual rhetoric with the idea that I can just pull something together the minute before. Probably not the best method for me or my students.

“Towards New Media Texts” but in old ways?

Cynthia Selfe’s chapter “Towards New Media Texts” in Writing New Media attempts to first define new media texts with particular attention to visual literacy, and then details composition instructors’ resistance to implementing these new forms of visual literacy within their curriculum. Selfe claims that instructors “privilege alphabetic literacy over visual literacy…because they have already invested so heavily in writing, writing instruction and writing programs” and seems to imply that visual and textual literacy cannot exist within the same course (71).  While Selfe’s argument is valid and extremely relevant, I found her somewhat sweeping claims that composition is becoming irrelevant to students who engage with technological forms of communication to be problematic.

While some forms of academia are becoming inappropriate or inconsequential in a digital age, there is no reason that core academic values cannot be updated to include new forms of communication and technology.  Selfe’s attempts to rationalize these concepts are apparent in her first sample activity of the visual essay. By introducing the newer idea of visual literacy through the more traditional and recognizable essay form, she grounds new media within accepted discourse conventions. While this is an admirable attempt to entwine visual and alphabetic literacy, her heavy dependence on essayist forms negates or makes unclear the more digital or new media aspects of the assignment. 

Because of the wording of the prompt, phrases like “the essay should demonstrate an overall coherence,” “the essay should identify 2-4 major points,” first year composition students will perhaps have difficulty grasping the core visual nature of the assignment (77). I think this could have been made more clear or more impactful if the prompt itself had been in a visual format (a flow chart illustrating all of the steps or requirements possibly), as this would model the type of work she is encouraging and expecting.

Also her reflection/evaluation sheet for the “composer/designer” is a rather generic form that could be applied to almost any academic essay written in a freshman composition course. If we are exploring new mediums of expression, shouldn’t there be new criteria for evaluation? Should students be responding to new media texts in the same language they would use for more textual works? How can we change or update student’s and our own discourse conventions to include and explicitly speak to these new literacies? 

Beyond ‘new’ literacies

Hi all!

I just found out about this through a listserv I subscribe to, and it looks like there are some interesting articles in this special themed issue: Beyond ‘new’ literacies, edited by Dana J. Wilber, and published by Digital Culture & Education, an interdisciplinary, web-published, open-access journal, which looks really cool and worth checking out. Some of the articles talk about constructivist pedagogies, visual literacies, definitions of literacies, etc….

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