Tag Archives: teaching

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: Enabling recomposition

So I found out there’s a term for something I’ve considered in my own writing for a long time, but Ridolfo and DeVoss call it rhetorical velocity. Instead, part of my composition process has always been to ensure I include a handful of clear sentences that, if stripped of their context, could still manage to communicate key concepts of the text I’m composing. I’ve thought of it more as mile markers for my readers, or even as a rhetorical device. My writing could be characterized as generally too loquacious, but I try to include cogent and succinct statements often.

A device I’ve used often to encourage rhetorical velocity is what I call the “tweet test.” I use it most often in blogging by trying to leave sentences or two that I could visualize someone using as a direct quote. I keep it to 100 characters to allow this fictional tweeter (it’s only happened once or twice throughout all my blog posts) room for a shortened url, my user name, or any other brief thoughts they’d want to include. My thought in writing it this way is that I’m helping my reader know what I find most important, and hoping that if they agree, I’ve given them a concise, interesting tidbit to share with others. I can see how, in determining if a blog post passes the tweet test, I’ve considered a lot of what Ridolfo and Devoss place in the left column of their “Rhetorical Velocity as a Concern of Invention” model:

  • I’ve assessed who might be interested;
  • I’ve considered why these persons might want to share (recompose) my work;
  • I’ve considered what the recomposer might produce, how it may be delivered, and have facilitated it by conforming to tweet-friendly lengths;
  • By intentionally keeping to so short a format, I’ve also enabled cross-platform sharing (not that I presume anything I write is so compelling that it must be reshared on Facebook, Google +, and other blogs);
  • And I obviously assume my writing’s temporal lifespan will be extremely limited, since I’m using Twitter as the standard.

Quite aside from my personal composition device, rhetorical velocity has definite potential in a computer-enabled composition course. If the course plan includes some degree of new media writing, introducing and applying the rhetorical velocity model for several weeks of writing assignments lays the groundwork for understanding the decisions of the writing process at large. The benefit here is that you can discuss and apply these concepts without using the old standard collection of composition instruction power words, but they still apply. Asking our writers to make sure they know and can show the answers to the model’s seven questions passively supports terms like audience, rhetorical situation, argument, illustration, and agency. As is so often the case, students have had previous composition experiences driven solely by these words of power, so anything to divest and reallocate rhetorical power is worth trying. Linking basic composition concepts back to this model is a game of pedagogical smoke and mirrors, I’ll concede, but it could be effective.

8900: Emergent Aurality

Situated Aurality

One of the resources included in our reading/listening this week was the Soundmap from Rhode Island. After clicking through a dozen or so places around the tiny New England state, my first reaction was “Meh. So what’s the worth?” I appreciated the concept, and thought its interface within Google Maps was accessible, but I had difficulty articulating its worth. My next thought was, as close to verbatim as I recall, “I’m sure it matters to Rhode Islanders, but it’s not unique; Georgia/Atlanta has a similar project , and so did Michigan.”

I was immediately struck by a wave of homesickness for Michigan, went to its Sounds of the State page, and found the sound closest to where I lived, a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.

That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me. I spent a few more minutes clicking around the sounds back in Michigan, smiling and nodding at a few that resonated, and shrugging at some that had no significance. And so it must be for people living in Rhode Island. Whether they’re down the road or across the world from Narragansett, sounds from its shores, piers, and streets situate them in their experienced places. These sound maps are worth more than their appeal to listeners outside the covered region, more than a digital drinking glass held up to a door for auditory voyeurs; these sounds are, for the residents, communication that carries something much more than the surface level detail. This is auditory composition, and it is a composition that is acutely aware of its authorship, its audience, and its message.

Crafted Auality

Somewhat briefer, I’d also like to acknowledge Jessica Barness’ Common Sounds project. Rather than letting the audience be just the audience, Barness invites them to take control of a handful of layerable soundtracks. I’m sure my progression through this was just like anyone else’s: try each sound individually, shrug and say okay. Then it was time to layer ALL the sounds! I, like everyone else who tried it did probably did, winced as the layers grew into an inarticulate cacophony. I resisted closing the window and I found that my auditory processing was up to the task, no matter how distasteful. My mind quickly organized the sounds into a unified piece that had rhythm and melody, even if a little too eccentric for my usual listening tastes. What occurred to me next was that I was listening to an entirely unique piece; each sound was playing in the order I layered it, which of course was situated differently in time to the sounds already playing and those yet to be added. Likely no one else (or at least very few others) chose the exact order and relative timing of the layers I did. I didn’t let it play long, but I enjoyed the tasks both of listening to the whole, and mentally isolating the individual layers while the rest continued to play.

I’d like to share a similar flash app with the class called The Chrome Project (although it should work well in any browser). I’ll leave it to you to figure out, but I think you’ll find the same sort of self-crafted aurality here, and the same challenges in contextualizing and isolating the different sounds. I hope you enjoy the process of tweaking and refining your compositions.

Pedagogical Aurality

With this week, we appear to be leaving behind the section of the course that has been the most enlightening to me so far. We’ve established that I’m now acutely aware of the fact that composition is a term much broader in scope and content than just writing. Not wanting to make the same mistake I did when we first began our talk of interface and the visual in composition, I kept my mind open regarding aural composition. What I’m left with now is the idea that perhaps composition is better (if somewhat muddily) defined as manipulable communication. Whether we’re engaging in verbal/written, a verbal/spoken, visual, or auditory communication, it is still communication we’re wholly in control of, both in form and content.

A few years ago, during my MA composition pedagogy course, we were asked to craft our teaching philosophies. Most of what I wrote now seems situated perfectly to where I was in my still very rudimentary thoughts on the teaching of composition, a plucky manifesto filled with vague affirmations of responsibility, open communication, and grammar vs. content. It wasn’t all together myopic, but it also wasn’t altogether well-informed. I’ve since discarded that statement, but have referred to it multiple times since, using it as a sort of mile marker in my pedagogical maturation. Most of what it contained is useless to me now, but as time progressed, one cogent, critical statement emerged from the detritus:

My specialty is my passion: writing. The written word is a pure form of discourse, no matter the writer or the audience. Writing provides the author the opportunity to present his or her most considered representation of their thoughts, their identities, and their beliefs. Each word, each thought can be chosen amidst a myriad of alternatives. Each such choice in expression gently shapes a writer’s voice, leaving a unique fingerprint on every work they undertake throughout time.

It’s been tweaked and remediated several times, but the core of what I wrote remains the same (and, oddly enough, its current form above appears on my LinkedIn page, of all places).

So, with my recent revelations in the visual and auditory realms of composition, now it’s time to consider revising it yet again. I come back to the thought of composition as manipulable communication. So long as the author/artist has control of a medium and a message to send, they’re composing. While I may personally have a particular passion for writing, I will do well to at least mentally swap in “composition” for “writing” in my teaching philosophy.

8900: The digitally absent composition instructor

This is my first semester teaching a first-year composition course – teaching at all, for that matter. When teaching actual class sections was still a far-off, abstract thing I’d get to do soon – way back in May – I had the idealized notion that I’d nail it on the first try. That notion never really solidified into anything specific that I wanted to include, but I’m pretty sure the intent had been to teach a technologically perfect class. That never really happened. Before I knew it, life was consumed by packing, ill-fated house-hunting trips to Atlanta, and finalizing affairs in Michigan. Then after the move, everything centered pretty much on restarting life here; unpacking, becoming a legitimate Georgia resident, and generally orienting myself.

Then it was less than two weeks before the first day of class and I realized I hadn’t the haziest clue of what I really wanted my classes to look and function like. What was clear was the goal of ensuring students would leave my classes better prepared for college writing than when they entered. I think I did what many people do with their first classes: I retreated to something of a safe mode. I’d do a good job now, but try to make it great later. I built a syllabus around in-class lectures on all the bare essentials of writing (as if I am really qualified to make such pronouncements): process, organization, support, audience, revision, and all the other concepts pedagogy suggests. I then populated it with equally safe writing assignments, added a couple of TBD days to accommodate schedule tweaks, and called it ready. I don’t mean to devalue these things above, because they are the crucial parts of composition education that I hope every class I teach will deliver, but one of the things left on the cutting room floor was my notion of a “technologically perfect” class. It was crunch time, so I set aside that which was difficult to define.

My reaction as a new instructor mimics in part what was discussed in this week’s reading for 8900, but I’ll get to that in a moment. It’s important first to note that what Cynthia Selfe tells us comes from a timeline now significantly different from our own. 1997 (and still in 1999, when her thoughts were republished) was right as the brave new world of computer/internet technology was exploding. She was justified in her apprehension over the willful ignorance she saw in the composition instruction community, and perhaps that anxiety worsened in the light of how she viewed a class-based technological divide. I can see how in 1999, the tendency of comp instructors to omit a structured role for computers from their course plans deprived those of lower technological literacy of yet another opportunity to level the playing field. Beyond simply failing to capitalize upon what computers offered to composition, there did exist the risk that populations statistically less likely to own or make frequent use of computers would find themselves on the wrong side of a widening access gap.

Now back to 2012 in Sparks Hall and Classroom South: have I unwittingly done the very thing that Selfe feared? Have I disadvantaged students by not better integrating the use of computers in my own course design, or is the digital landscape sufficiently different now that I can put those fears aside? I believe we can go beyond the examples that are tirelessly trotted out in digital writing discussions, like social media and the proliferation of cell phones, and acknowledge that the economics are now far friendlier; the average cost of a bare bones desktop hovered around $1,000 at the end of the 90s, whereas perfectly capable laptops can now run between $250-$300. I won’t pretend that’s all there is to the issue of access, but I think that should be less of a concern to Selfe by now. On the other hand, I may still be doing a disservice to students by failing to more assertively break the writing venue model they likely had in high school: come to school, sit in a classroom with 20 other students, listen to one instructor talk about how one figures out how to write best, get an assignment, go home and type it out on a word processor (Selber nailed it – the mode is still a glorified typewriter), and finally hand it in.

I believe my hesitation to include formalized digital writing requirements in my haste to come up with a course plan can be linked back to a question I asked myself constantly during the development phase: “What purpose does this serve?” When I attempted answer that question regarding digital writing, I felt my responses were either too corny and trite (“our students are writing digitally all the time, anyway”) or that I risked distracting from the ultimate point of the course by trying too hard to be current. Thus, I retreated to a safe spot and made a copy of the any other old composition course. Write your papers, get some feedback, revise them, and off you go.

As I’m sure was intended when these readings were chosen, and as I hoped for when I decided on this course for my first semester, I’ve just taken a look at what I planned for my classes and am now thinking that waiting for “great” isn’t going to cut it. What I already have planned is good and important, but I think I need to take another crack at my syllabus to see what I can do better.

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.