8900: Visual Literacy/Rhetoric

This week’s topic of visual literacy/rhetoric was a challenge for me to collect into handful of coherent takeaways. I purposely read Dr. Hocks’ Understanding Visual Rhetoric last in this group of four to forestall any bias I might take into the other readings; similar to Elbow’s awareness of the internal editor impinging on writing decisions (in Stroupe 613), I was concerned a familiarity with our instructor’s thoughts on the topic would naturally skew the conclusions I would draw from Arola, George, and Stroupe. That still happened, but because Hocks gives us a convenient way to organize our understanding of visual literacy and rhetoric in digital environments. While we certainly cannot ignore the non-digital in the composition classroom, I’d wager no one disagrees that digital comprises the vast majority of what our students engage with in visual composition.

From Hocks we can derive three statements about “how visual rhetoric operates in digital writing environments” (632): Authors define the audience stance, controlling interactivity for their audience; digital texts are degreed in their transparency, using established conventions of other media to reduce or eliminate audience awareness of the conveying medium or interface; and the merging of visual and verbal elements creates hybridity, a whole composition experience that may be greater than the sum of its parts.

I’m not sure if it was Dr. Hocks’ intention in selecting these pieces, but we can find something in each reading that lines up with audience stance, transparency, and hybridity.


I’ll turn first to Craig Stroupe’s Visualizing English. Stroupe argues in 2000 that the future for every instructor in every sub-discipline under the loose heading of English will necessarily entail coexistence with web or other digital authorship: “The discipline needs to decide not only whether to embrace the teaching of visual and information design in addition to verbal production … but, more fundamentally, whether to confront its customary cultural attitudes toward visual discourses and their insinuation into verbal texts” (608).

Stroupe hoped that if departments chose to engage with this challenge – to accept a hybridity of composition discourse, it would lead to an equalization of the marginalized and the privileged programs (609). This argument is pursued with a comparison between the expressivist theory of Peter Elbow and the function-minded theory behind a then current web design software guide. Stroupe finds unexpected unity between the two. Similar to Elbow’s belief that unencumbered espressivism leads to purer, stronger writing, Stroupe says of web design, “What distinguishes the truly powerful and effective Web author is the degree of control that he or she can have on the reader’s experience of visual layout and graphic display as mediated through the intervening tangle of technologies” (614).


In Diana George’s From Analysis to Design, we get a strong argument in favor of actively seeking to include more visual projects within the composition classroom. George draws the crux of her point early, referencing the effect of visual composition projects constructed by her own students. She relates the impact left by wholly visual presentations made by her students on the fate of post-colonial Africa; these presentations still carried the same goals of a traditional composition assignment, but George believes the visual’s capacity to effectively communicate is going unnoticed by composition instructors. “The work of these students and others like them has convinced me that current discussions of visual communications and writing instruction have only tapped the surface of possibilities for the role of visual communication in the composition class … our students have a much richer imagination for what we might accomplish with the visual than our journals have yet to address” (12). In this we see students understanding their power of controlling audience stance, and then using that agency to create a visual experience that in turn fosters a very carefully constructed message – just like the ideal of written or verbal composition.

George seeks to enhance understanding of the effects of visual communication and learning in the composition classroom, and makes a different call for instructors of composition than “a vague call for attention to ‘visual literacy’” (15). George instead wants composition instructors to understand that to students in the composition classrooms of today, the visual is what they have grown up with and know very well. Our students’ visual culture (an appraisal also certainly truer now than in the article’s publication year of 2003) prepares them to communicate in a more effectively visual way than we may be anticipating as their instructors.

George embarks on fostering this understanding by revisiting past run-ins between verbal composition traditionalism and emerging visual medias. This has happened repeatedly in the several decades past as composition instructors at first resisted, then accepted the encroachment of photography, film, comics, or television into their students’ extracurricular experiences. It seems, though, that despite this constant pressure, we have only recently begun to accept or actively promote the more visual forms of composition and expression.


Finally, in Kristin Arola, we have a more current appraisal of the effectiveness in web design, speaking directly to issues of transparency in web design – coincidentally a popular venue of visual composition. Starting first with her own progressive experience in web design, Arola sings the virtues of maintaining holistic composition through the ability to manipulate every single part of a web design. Recalling the first time she created a web page at the HTML code/Photoshop level, “I felt powerful creating my own designs, and for the first time ever I felt technologically literate” (4).

What concerns Arola is the effect of the “Web 2.0” shift on web authoring. After dismaying at her students’ seeming indifference to ownership of online content in the age of Facebook and other social media, Arola relays:

As one student smartly analogized to me, ‘Just because I can drive a car doesn’t mean I can fix one.” The more seamless and invisible the technology becomes, the less we tend to  know about how it works. As our students’ lives become more seamlessly enmeshed with the Internet, the less they know about web development. (5)

The rise of form-generated editing (such as Facebook and blog services like WordPress) removes a critical aspect of visual composition, according to Arola: no matter how much control one has over the content – the words – that appears in theses spaces, the removal of total control of its appearance and context has the potential to undo the liberation of expression brought about by the web explosion. When removed from the sandbox of open web development, Arola worries that students lose agency over design, and therefore message.


So after turning the three prongs of audience stance, hybridity, and transparency on our other three authors of the week, I’ll attempt to sum up some response I personally had to this week’s reading.

My biggest takeaway was probably in response to Arola, and it’s probably in no small part because she writes much closer to our timeframe. The “Web 2.0” thing has been a source of mild befuddlement for me. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web protocols, sees this term as a meaningless jargon word. According to Berners-Lee, and I’m in total agreement, what we call Web 2.0 is just the natural progress of how the web was always going to turn out – a content-driven, user-centric share point of information. And it’s no surprise that something so writing-based would be catching the notice of composition theory. As we’ve said several times in class now, it’s a fallacy that social networks are destroy writing; students write for themselves more often now than at any time in modern education’s history.

Yet I see Arola’s point. I too felt powerful when I created my first crap website, a pathetic little thing in 1999 where I felt compelled to share my poetry with the masses (no, I will not be sharing any archives of the link). I manually coded every page of that site, and probably agonized far too much on the design decisions considering I probably only ever had three unique visitors beside myself. Yet still, it was wholly my creation. It was my choice of style.

Ultimately, I don’t think we can fret too much over the lack of open sandbox web design in our post-2.0 world. I don’t think the immutability of template-driven content delivery really threatens to reverbalize student writing. For those who find the paradigm just too restrictive, they’re still able to learn web design as they wish. For the many of us who fall in the middle of having significant digital content to deliver because its online publication has value to us, but who lack current web authoring skills, I doubt the web authoring landscape is so hostile as to keep us quiet. Besides that, web developers are constantly re-enabling us with more media-sharing and remediation options.

If I had wanted to manually code last week’s 8900 blog post, I would have written 77,410 characters across 1314 lines of HTML, and that’s completely apart from the graphic aspects of my design. If anything, services like WordPress are freeing by eliminating the bottleneck of design over content. Like Arola’s student, there will be a point where anything I can conceive my web design will need to do will be available transparently, and I won’t need to know how it works. That’s good enough for me, and I’d wager the vast majority of those who compose digitally.


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