Tag Archives: academia

Visual Rhetoric: Revisualizing ENGL 1101

“Tell them that there are not (yet?) fixed definitions of what constitutes a ‘visual argument,’ so they will have to work with what they understand ‘argument’ and ‘the visual’ to be.”

– Anne Wysocki

In my continuing quest to bring my composition class out of a dominantly written/verbal mode that’s nearly as teachable in 1914 as it is in 2014, I’ve come up with a mockup of the class I want to teach.

Foremost, my overall goal of this transformation is to maintain a strong foundation of writing instruction. As I’ve said before, I can’t lose sight of written composition skills as a primary outcome for anyone enrolled in my course because that is what the academy will expect of them repeatedly in their next few years. Keeping that in mind, I can better envision how I want to make my class more visually situated.

I decided to focus on ENGL 1101. As of this point, I think I have a workable course plan and philosophy for 1102, but I’ve had half as many chances at bat in its prerequisite, and it’s that course plan that feels the most in need of change.

To frame my revisualization of 1101, I’ve created a rough comparison of 1101 as it unfolded in the single section I taught this semester, juxtaposed to the nascent plan for the next time I teach 1101 (which I hope is this coming Fall).

ENGL 1101, Spring 2014

Theme: digital identity

4 major writing assignments

  • Low engagement, progression too abrupt, no tangible interconnectedness between assignment

Various short writings/quizzes

  • Low stakes, little development beyond credit/no credit
  • Ultimately punitive

Partnered readings presentations

  • Most engaging and creative assignment – required a visual component

Ultimately indistinguishable from any other generic writing course

Having a primarily written/verbal course meant there was limited opportunity for the inward transfer of alternative composition skills my students may have had at their disposal. Functionally, I do think the written assignments served their purpose well for the most part, and students have confirmed that impression in informal course feedback received thus far. The single visually-accessible assignment of the course was popular, but from there it felt like a compulsory, low interest grind to the end. I don’t question that there has been growth in my students’ writing skill, but I think that same growth may have been achievable with less redundancy in fewer assignments.

Thus, it looks like there is room to spare for a second composition focus in my composition class. To figure out how to frame this second focus – and more importantly, have its inclusion make sense to the students – I wanted a better theme than the somewhat stilted non-starter theme of “digital identity.” (Interesting side note: After having used the theme a few times in the past year across 1102 and 1101, it seems that traditional college students – meaning those enter college directly out of secondary education – are simply not as interested in examining their digital identity as educators would hope. I hate to generalize, but it’s possible that 18-19-year-olds now are too “born digital” to see their digital identity as that separate, whereas those even just a few years older are just enough on the cusp of internet expansion to see it as a more distinct phenomenon.) My tentative plan is moving forward with a vague “social justice” theme. It’s a bit tried-and-true as far as novelty in composition course themes go, but it does offer a lot of room for engagement with a composition topic.

To better define what it is I want the students to take from the course, I also will draw from a success I’ve had in recent 1102, which is to firmly and outwardly define the composition skills I want to cultivate. I’ve also decided to arrange the assignments to be as closely 50/50 written/visual as possible. Thus, every written assignment will either have a visually analytical or visually productive pairing situated very closely – a co-equal ancillary that provides a visual answer to the written call.

ENGL 1101, Future

Theme: social justice (tentative)
Learning objective: Summary • Weeks 2-4

  • Assignment: Facilitated reading annotation. Similar to the readings presentations in the earlier version, students will read, digest, and summarize an assigned portion of a larger course text (perhaps the university-assigned composition reader or similar), the format of which could be a single annotation; all such annotations are compiled and dispensed as a collection
  • Paired Assignment: Facilitated reading presentation. Using the same source material, students will create a class presentation to remediate their summarized material as visually as possible; I may prohibit PowerPoint to encourage broader experimentation in format

Learning objective: Argument Analysis • Weeks 5-8

  • Assignment: Argument Deconstruction. 2-3 page written analysis of a documentary’s argument, focusing on evidence presented, ethos/logos, and audience awareness
  • Paired Assignment: Visual Deconstruction. Entirely separate 2-3 page written analysis of the same documentary’s visual argument, focused on pathos and rhetorical choice

Learning objective: Argument Building • Weeks 9-16

  • Assignment: Researched Argument. Major course paper, 5-7 pages, on social issue of student’s choice, drafted, refined with peer & instructor feedback, conference
  • Paired Assignment: Argument Visualized. Visual remediation of paper as entirely visual argument, requiring minimal or zero use of words, formatted as a displayable piece or video
  • Possible addition: Exhibition. Class open house/exhibition of argument visualizations (no additional grade)

It is my hope that the paired call and answer of the verbal and the visual modes will guide lay the groundwork for several positive outcomes in addition to offering a more whole composition course:

  • Better transfer, both inward and internally; visually-oriented students will have more to draw from to aid them in the course than just written arguments, and hopefully visually- and verbally-oriented will both improve on a weaker skillset when they have their preferred mode as a mediator
  • Increased student interest, perception of course material as boring or a grind when they have more creative input in fully half of the course’s major assignments
  • Having a broadly-encompassing but clearly defined course theme might offer better engagement, especially if students fully embrace the activism-minded options the theme offers
  • The “worst” assignment – the large researched argument paper – is finished well before finals, with the (hopefully) more enjoyable, creative assignment bringing the course to a close

The next step is to draft the specific assignment details, which I think I may share here when complete.

Round 2

I’ve been recuperating after the two-week marathon of reading and writing that brought the Fall 2012 semester to a close. Thinking back on it now, I can reasonably guestimate that between the student papers I had to read (finals, revisions of earlier assignments) and my own projects I had to complete, I read or wrote somewhere near 120,000 words from November 30th – December 12th. I had originally intended to write this reflective piece after finishing the first semester, but think now that it was better to wait (read: be lazy). I’ve gotten some distance, and my brain has reassembled somewhat. I’m ready to move forward.

In moving forward, I feel I must look back on what I managed to accomplish in my first semester teaching College Composition I, and what I can be applied to College Comp II, which I start teaching this week. I’m trying to keep an eye toward the student experience. As I’ve acknowledged here already, I know that I defaulted to a mode of instruction too basic and safe: four papers, too much lecture, reliance on teaching the classic research paper model as the exemplar of college writing. For the uninitiated, this of course sounds like what students should be learning, so why would I be dissatisfied? I absolutely do not regret covering what I did. A first-year writing course should be concerned with coherence, detail, support, revision, research, audience, among many other aspects of “good” writing. So my first semester teaching comp was a success in that I covered what I needed to, but was that enough? I don’t think so.

I’d like for students to be engaged by more than an expectation that they will be engaged – I want that to be a more natural, organic relationship than my last class necessarily supported. I think a lot of the difference between a merely successful learning experience and a valuable learning experience comes from this gap. I also want to tread carefully here; I’m fully aware of the cliché college instructor in jeans and corduroy blazer, pleading for his students to “write whatcha feeeeeel, man!” Assignments and activities have to mean something to the student, but I am here to accomplish the above musts of a composition course.

I’ll have the opportunity to apply these lessons to College Comp I (1101) the next time I take up sections, presumably next fall semester, but I’ve also let this dissatisfaction inform how I approach College Comp II. I’ve decided to abandon the series of increasingly difficult papers model and instead focus directly on the writing process in manner that will be more innately appealing. I hope to do that in two ways. First I’ve organized the material of the course around something contemporary that many students are already steeped in without knowing it. Using the (E)Dentity reader (edited by Stephanie Vie), a collection of somewhat recent essays on issues of digital identity and negotiating online experiences, I believe students will find the topic relevant to whatever modes/arenas they conduct themselves in digitally. This is hopefully scalable across multiple levels of digital identification, from the deeply-immersed to those who may have little or no online presence. Ideally, everyone can find a place on the spectrum where they can say “here is where I am comfortable” or another where they can say “here is where I want to be.” The challenge from this topic will be keeping the conversation from reducing down too simply about services and ignoring deeper thought about digital identity.

The second way I anticipate this model can help students is by trying to replicate a level of scholarship that should hopefully exceed the complexity of writing they’d face in the near future. Essentially, I hope to have them construct a significant piece of scholarship that they can be confident would measure up to the scrutiny of the same community we constantly ask them to draw from for their research – academic research journals and edited collections. This may seem like too much to ask of someone so new to college-level writing, but I believe it can be reduced down to a series of parts that, taken alone, wouldn’t be cause for much stress. This is where the emphasis of process comes in, by showing how simple it is to assemble a process that accomplishes a great deal of work – something will be asked of them countless times over the next 3+ years of education. It may seem hard – and it would be insanely harsh of me to ask for what I will if I did so as a final paper assigned only weeks before it was due – but my ambition is to show them the benefit of a plan.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve recently experienced a unique approach to doing just this. Toward the end of my MA studies at University of Michigan-Flint, James Schirmer conducted a summer session graduate class modeled loosely after the idea of a “Book Sprint.” In short, the ~15 grad students in that class collaboratively conceived, planned, researched, and wrote an edited collection on a single topic, with the idea of book-level publishability as an end goal. I loved the class concept and enjoyed the process. It made a large project accessible and frankly not at all intimidating. I hope to replicate that same effect for my Comp II students. From my syllabus, introducing the modified version of the course James and I have come to call Text Dash:

This section of ENGL 1102 is modeled loosely on a method of compressed, focused, collaborative writing academics sometimes use to rapidly produce a collection of scholarship on a narrowly-defined topic. In a traditional “Text Dash,” the text is crafted from idea to finished product over the course of a long weekend. In ENGL 1102 we have the opportunity to space that out a little more. Over the course of the semester, you will gradually build the familiarity, resources, and skills necessary to collaboratively produce a well-informed and informative text of scholarship.

At the end of this course, you should be more than prepared to meet the demands of the academic writing assignments you will encounter as you continue at Georgia State University. (emphasis added here)

The Text Dash model will take students from familiarizing themselves with the in-progress discussion, through deciding what they can add to that discussion, to writing a fully realized, coherent, collaborative discussion of their own. From there, the course will replicate the process of taking on so large a project, and as a result, more organically cover all the things we think “good” writing must exhibit. The course will be divided into phases of preparation, research, drafting, and revision before submitting a “final” copy. Only one single paper will be written throughout the entire semester, but the process will space students evenly through the major requirements of pretty much any sizeable writing project, and all with the goal of something in-depth and publishable.

The last sentence from the syllabus above is exactly what I want from this course and why, as daunting as this class may sound to my students now, I’m betting they will stick around. While I won’t necessarily ask the same length of writing that such edited collections normally would, and my primary aim is not to actually publish their work (putting completely aside concerns of whether I even can ask them to put their work out, or what form it can legitimately take), I do hope they arrive on the other side of the class thinking that it wasn’t all that bad taking on so large a project. Ideally, the projects they face in the coming semesters can then be greeted not with panic or stress, but instead with “I’ve done something bigger than this. Let’s get started.”

8900: Scholarship rechanneled (or, A meta-analysis of academic blogging)

By the time Yancey’s Made Not Only in Words was published, blogs had been around for a few years. It wasn’t until mid-decade – about the time in which Yancey writes – that the format was beginning to be realized for its scholarly potential.

Since that time many composition instructors have worked course blogging into their pedagogy, grateful to provide an outlet for student writing that was an alternative to, as Yancey stated, “emphasis on a primary and single human relationship: the writer in relation to the teacher” (309). Instructors saw in blogging many potentials: the encouragement of critical thinking and writing; the revoicing of writing into a conversational tone that they wouldn’t feel compelled to call out during grading of a major course paper; and the tearing down of the firewall of official school writing venues so student writers could engage with a broader audience that didn’t necessarily have to include the instructor. Scholarly blogging was, and is still, a developmental win-win.

Concurrently, these same instructors were realizing the potential scholarly blogging held for their own professional development. Blogs, especially when shared with a circle of like-minded pedagogues, were a New Media writing locus somewhere short of the same status as journal publication, but still worthy of consideration as scholarship. The immediacy of an academic blog’s writer-reader relationship helped to refine rhetorical thinking and pedagogy through a much quicker, nimbler, and more negotiated channel than the proposal>submit>rewrite>publish>review>respond process of traditional publishing. While there wasn’t the same strength of quality control we attribute to a peer-reviewed journal, there was a real-time editorial process enabled by peers nonetheless: colleagues in the academy received and reciprocated profoundly helpful criticism. This is a strength that is arguably unique to scholarly blogging: agile, rigorous, yet collaborative pedagogical development.

I’ve already experienced the benefits of scholarly blogging requirements twice as a student. In 2009 (the course that required the development of this blog’s earlier iteration) and now in this course, I’ve felt more free to engage with whatever little item of interest I personally find worth writing about, but to not worry about inflating it to full paper size, scope, or rigor. Comments that I’ve left and that have been left for me continue this sort of development. Much like the professional’s circle of like minds, these course blog rings synthesize that reciprocal development.

I came to choose this topic for this week’s post from two inputs: Yancey’s mention that “faculty see blogs – if they see them at all – as (yet) another site for learning” (302) and Ball’s Show, Not Tell quoting of Steven Krause:

‘Prior to the web, it was east to determine what should or shouldn’t count as scholarship: if it appeared as an article in a peer reviewed journal or if it was published as a book by a respectable press, it was definitionally ‘scholarship’ both in the abstract sense of advancing knowledge and in the tangible sense of being worthy to count toward tenure, review, merit, and so forth.’ [emphasis added] (404)

I too have experienced the sense of reciprocal development the way an academic would when a few of my blog postings have briefly become known to the larger internet community of rhetoricians. There’s nothing like seeing an unknown name as a commenter on your blog to put your confidence in your writing to the test. It is because of these moments that I wonder if blog scholarship really isn’t as rigorous as the more accepted forms of scholarly development. Departments must also be wondering about this status, too, as scholarly blogs are included more and more in instructor portfolios for review, promotion, or even tenure.

Scholarly blogs serve as a microcosm of the Burkean parlor conversation or, to stretch the metaphor a little further, conversations among a small gathering of parlor attendees off to the side. The larger conversation is still in effect, but these sidebars draw from it and later add back to it, enriching the breadth and depth of the parlor topic over time. If we see blogs in composition class as worthwhile (something I certainly plan for 1102 and the next time I teach 1101),  blogs have to be worth something professionally.

8900: The optimism of youth

New tends to freak humans out. Anytime something new comes along with the potential to redefine or redesign, we tend to get excited and upset in equal measure.

“New” is a messy, imprecise term when it comes to the broad fields of computers and composition instruction. That they overlap is clear, but how they interact and where they matter to each other is less so. There’s a recurrent theme in this week’s reading: optimism. From different snapshots in time, these writers attempt to parse the new effects of technology on writing. These observations are either directly optimistic themselves, or they engage the optimism of others.

Vannevar Bush, writing when we were only beginning to guess the possible outcomes of the nascent technology age, describes his conceptualization of home computing equipment designed to aid the storage and organization of information and research. Bush is optimistic that beleaguered researchers will finally have digital assistance in maintaining their ever-growing “mountain(s) of research” (2) and this would enable better writing. Nearly 45 years later Richard Lanham again focuses in on the benefits of technology on research, but now looks at it from the point of view of students. He writes that the literature and composition students of 1989 are on the verge of a quantum leap in the accessibility of texts, morphing from unidirectional talking to readers to a dialogue of authors and readers sharing both up and down the stream of information, creating nonpermanent living texts in the process. Both authors are dazzled by the concept of greater access and engagement with information.

Only two years after Lanham, however, Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe conclude this exuberance about what computers may offer writers doesn’t necessarily translate into better teaching: “… technology can fail us. We need to recognize that … computers can, and often do, support instruction that is as repressive and lockstep as any that we have seen” (61). Despite this criticism, Hawisher and Selfe still see potential for the technology to enable students of composition to retake authority over their own writing.

These discussions are still taking place in the academy, and with similar fervor of optimism and skepticism, depending on who you ask. In the past few years alone, we’ve heard enthusiasm over social writing spaces: writing is writing, and we should be thrilled that students are willingly occupying themselves with so much writing, no matter the venue. We’ve also heard frustration over these services and worry that these places undermine student understanding of audience and voice.

We’re always going to be reacting – optimistically or negatively – to what’s new in computing because the very nature of our technological existence ensures there will constantly be something new. The reality is that by the time we see enough to conclude that computers (again – the broadest sense of the term applies) have affected writing, that effect is so entrenched as to be irreversible, and the next big agent of change is already up and coming.