The Changing Face of the Visual: A Historical Survey of Freshman Composition by Ernest M. Rimanosky
Since the end of World War II, visual rhetoric based writings in the first year composition classroom have become more prevalent. Visual rhetoric has already enjoyed a high level of success because not only are there many media and technological resources available for discourse, but the design of writing prompts has given students the latitude to pursue topics and modes of expression of interest such that the composition becomes a part of their lives. Since television became commonplace at the end of World War II, there has been a number of significant technologies developed such as the personal computer, the World Wide Web, and portable cell phones that contribute to enhanced modes of writing instruction. A more recent development includes text messaging via mobile learning devices (MLDs); these computerized cell phones, or m-technologies are being presently used by grade school students. In the wake of these technological developments, instructors have been able to design first year writing assignments that engage students’ interests, abilities, and creativity through visual rhetoric.
Although I could argue that developments in visual rhetoric are certainly technology driven, the main issue I would like to focus on are the range of assignments developed for the first year composition class that can be rich and varied, as students are more likely to buy into the assignment because they can choose how they want to construct their argument. First I will address the influence of the visual that started at the end of World War II through the media of Dick and Jane grade school readers and the television as a source of instruction for the preschooler, as television also served as an instruction aid in the classroom, to the founding of multimodal composition by the New London Group in the first section of this essay “Influence of the Visual at the Macroscopic Level.” The next two sections are: “The Genealogy of Visual Rhetoric Writing Assignments” and “Visual Rhetoric Writing Assignments beneath the Microscope.” I will conclude with a discussion instructors’ experiences concerning the design and evaluation of visually driven prompts and new mobile technologies used at the K-12 level of composition in the section “A Bird’s Eye View of Visual First Year Composition.”
Influence of the Visual at the Macroscopic Level
In the beginning of her essay “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing,” Diana George recognizes, based on the variety of student responses to one of her assignments, that “current discussions of visual communication and writing instruction have only tapped the surface of possibilities for the role of visual communication in the composition class” (12). She discusses the push for the practice of visual rhetoric and that its communication may involve multiple literacies and that not only is there confusion as to what the visual is, but that there is a tension between visual and written communication exists. By visual, she means something that is either an image or a hybrid of text and images as in comic books, television documentaries, and films. She feels this tension is not such a bad thing and is more concerned with what the visual can achieve when it is made part of a composition. George goes on to relate the history of the increasing influence of the visual in English composition classes which I would like to document below as I think this understanding will assist in my discussion of how writing assignments have changed in the face of changing technologies up to this day.
The influence of the visual first made itself apparent after World War II with illustrations in grade school texts that taught reading. Interesting enough, George identifies the first influence of the visual as impacting reading, and then subsequently writing. With the advent of the 1946 edition of the Dick and Jane elementary reader, reading instructors recognized that student reading comprehension was not only attaining proficiency with written language, but with illustrations too. It was not only this reader that had this effect but the everyday exposure to cartoons like Mickey Mouse and the comics section of the newspaper encountered by adults showed that the visual was becoming a mainstream of American culture. In addition, I remember how the little golden books and those of Dr. Seuss provided instruction such as the Dr. Seuss’s ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book! (Figure 1). In the 1950’ and 1960’s, the television came onto the American cultural scene.
By 1961, television had widespread influence as just about every American household owned one or more. When I reflected on my childhood, I realized how the influence of television on the traditional building blocks of composition was a result of the shows children was exposed. Indeed there were educational shows directed towards preschool children such as the local Buffalo, New York station WKBW Rocket Ship 7 with Dave Thomas and The Commander Tom Show hosted by the weatherman Tom Jolls. The one show that made a deep impression on me was Sesame Street. It taught children everything from personal hygiene, i.e. the cartoon of Alexander Grundy who washed one body part each day of the week, to how to recite the alphabet and count. My favorite character was Count von Count. Figure 2 is a still frame of him as he counted to ten. As he said the number, it would appear then disappear like a mist, to facilitate a pause for the children to grasp what he said, and then he would count the next number. The influence of multimedia, especially television, was powerful because children could be prepared how to count and memorize the alphabet before stepping foot onto one Formica tile of any kindergarten classroom; I remember this type of learning to be very
effective in that it not only uses the visual of the number 3 and how Count von Count carefully pronounced it, with a sufficient delay in time for it to register in the child’s mind, but that his act of counting was also visually grounded in the children audience’s eye with the presence of three apples.
The next development in the application of visual rhetoric to composition was by a group of ten literary educators: Courtney B. Cazden, Bill Cope, Norman Fairclough, James Paul Gee, Mary Kalantzis, Gunther Kress, Joseph Lo Bianco, Carmen Luke, Sarah Michaels, and Martin Nakata who convened in 1994 in New London, New Hampshire, hence the name the New London Group. In a review of the text Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, John Trimbur highlighted the aim of the New London Group was to bring forth a writing pedagogy that reacted to the fast paced world of late capitalism via literacies that ranged from music to spatial layout of shopping malls such that their “notion of multiliteracies is both an analytical tool to understand changes that are taking place in the means and channels of communication and an organizing principle for a literacy curriculum that enables students to participate fully in public, community, and economic life” (660). The process of generating the text of an essay has became an outmoded form of communication in the conventional sense of being equated “with linear, argument, thesis-driven print texts that are passed forward in class and geared primarily, if not exclusively, to an audience of one (the instructor)” (Shipka 282). Writing via visual rhetoric has evolved into a social act in how the student interacts and reacts to the world they live in through designed assignments and multimodal forms of representation performed in the classroom. I would like to now turn to the design of assignments by Jody Shipka.
In today’s first-year classroom, authors concerned with assignment designs and multimodal techniques of composition regard the writing student as a consumer of various media and genres of text for productive consumption purposes in meeting the requirements of the writing assignment. In this writing scenario, the media and genres used in fulfilling the writing assignment have been “repurposed.” The classmates who are the audience of these productions are also considered to be consumers. Jody Shipka defines in her essay “A Multimodal Task-Based Framework for Composing,” a multimodal framework she has her students follow in meeting the requirements of the writing assignment that can culminate in the production of a VHS cassette movie or a compact disc with a program that directs the user audience with special instructions to experience authorial intent of the composition on a computer. This framework operates through what Shipka calls “action sequences” that can include steps in the writing process such as data collection from various sources, conducting research on the marketing of consumer items, staging live footage as part of the composition, the transfer of the composition onto Web pages, VHS cassette tapes or compact discs for video purposes, and a list of instructions for audience use. The assignments were multimodal in the sense that more than one genre of text was used in conjunction with a selected form of multimedia in any of the action sequences. The compositions of Shipka’s students were visual presentations made to the class. Also, the design of these multimodal writing assignments was constructed in such a way that the Writing Proficiency Assessment (WPA) outcomes requirements were met.
In their discussion of a final project for the first semester of a freshman writing two-course sequence, Lisa Bickmore and Ron Christianson discuss this assignment as a combination of a researched argument and a genre translation. They mention that these two texts taken separately may not be “necessarily multimodal, the overall final project is multimodal and opens up new spaces as well as new contexts of use” (Bickmore and Christianson 232). In the “Visual Rhetoric Writing Assignments beneath the Microscope” section, I will try to discern which assignments are pure multimodal from ones that are facilitated multimodal texts composed of a single mode in, as Shipka would have it, each action sequence.
The Genealogy of Visual Rhetoric Writing Assignments
Before I discuss the visual rhetoric assignments that are being offered today, I would like to first address the work a brief history of the development of these assignments. The work of George proves invaluable once again as she not only traces the historical development of a visual rhetoric through images that first affected reading and then the influence of multi-media on composition, but she also gives a brief historical account of the development of writing assignments. She goes back to the 19th century when writing assignment prompts were given in order to facilitate more accurate and vivid use of language by way of visual stimulation such as paintings. During the period from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, George describes the growing influence of the visual through the analysis of advertisements. However, such analyses were limited to propaganda and semantics, not focused necessarily on the implied meaning of the composition via arrangement. In the 1970’s, the visual took another step forward in which it was utilized in composition courses, as described by Kehl, to assist students who were more visually savvy than with their writing skills.
The development of the visual I found especially interesting was when George discussed the adaptation of art critic John Berger’s essay “Ways of Seeing” in the late 1980’s by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petoskey who published a text on composition titled Ways of Reading. The reason I feel this way is because as visual rhetoric developed from its passive use in the 19th century to stimulate composition towards a formal rhetoric in which images are interpreted based on culturally determined meanings. The writer is now seen as an interpreter unique to their place and time as much as Copernicus who discovered the earth was not the center of the universe. What I find amazing is that each iteration of the visual in composition becomes not only more true to being informative, but as I will show through the sample homework assignments, yields an expressivist flavor of freedom in the writing assignments to better engage the students. I think students may have realized they have more to gain from performing these writing assignments because they have the opportunity to develop a cultural awareness in a society they are a product of.
Just briefly, I would like to touch upon the vehicle by which visual rhetoric writings are composed on a personal computer. I remember when Dell Computer Incorporated sent out flyers in the mid 1980’s promoting their personal computers. These units were desktops, as the laptop was not even on the scene, which had only 25 megabytes of hard disk space and retailed for about $10,000. Composing on the computer was exclusive to either the elite or those fortunate enough to be employed in a position to have access to such a resource. Today’s computer, much more powerful than what I had just described, has been made readily available to the “Joneses.” The next section will address the development of writing prompts over time.
Visual Rhetoric Writing Assignments beneath the Microscope
What I would like to do is present a series of writing assignments from the 1970’s to the present that George addressed in her essay “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing.” By doing this, a feel for the progression of the visual in first year writing classes is invoked and at the same time, I hope to anticipate what future writing assignments might be that utilize visual rhetoric. I will start with what D. G. Kehl outlines as writing assignments based on advertisements and then discuss the assignments George and Welch gave their students to hopefully establish the growth of visual rhetoric in the first-year classroom.
The main issue Kehl addresses in his essay “The Electric Carrot: The Rhetoric of Advertisement” is student awareness of facilitated consumerism. Advertisements are generated by highly manipulative individuals to sell products to people that they do not necessarily need. A lot of the rhetoric used is select buzz words that catch the potential customer’s attention over other words not as attractive that could convey an equivalent message. Such an example Kehl uses is an ad for Pall Mall cigarettes which he distills into a syllogism:
I’m particular. Millions are. If you, too, are particular about taste, you don’t have
to wear a button to prove it! Simply smoke Pall Mall….Be particular….Pall Mall,
famous cigarettes. “Wherever particular people congregate.”
Major premise: Particular people will smoke Pall Mall cigarettes.
Minor premise: You certainly wish to be a particular person.
Conclusion: Therefore, you will smoke Pall Mall cigarettes. (137)
Kehl does not directly state what the freshman composition assignments were, but he does discuss what the responsibilities of the writing instructor are to spread consumer awareness. He sees the manipulative acts of advertising through persuasion as opportunities to 1) fight verbal illiteracy of the targeted audience; 2) to be wary of verbal artistry; 3) relate the good and the bad of persuasion or propaganda such as only particular people smoke Pall Mall cigarettes. The advantage Kehl identified with such an analysis of these advertisements was that students were exposed to critical thinking in which they could analyze media such as television commercials and magazine ads to identify the underlying compositional and rhetorical strategies. Kehl found that this use of the visual assisted students in the writing process of their thesis statement formulation to the final draft. However, this instruction was in the age of typewriters, before computers were commonplace. The resultant student writings were limited to text as the manipulation of images via Photoshop or Microsoft Paint was not available at that time. The overall effort was basically limited to a qualitative visualized market analysis.
The assignment George gave to her students is multifaceted in the sense students chose from various media such as film, explorers’ journals, reports, and novels they had read. The expressivist approach here empowers students to freely develop their visual argument supplemented by the course readings such as King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild; Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs; Through the Dark Continent by Henry M. Stanley; and Travels in West Africa by Mary Kingsley that served as a back drop. The prompt she gave the students was to create a visual argument, though she is much more optimistic in this regard than J. Anthony Blair, who is a visual purist, in that their work will project an argument. The first step of the assignment was to create a book cover for one of the books read. Next was to draw a map that captured the changes of Leopold’s reign based on socio-economic changes. The third step, which was the most liberating for the students where they could express themselves, was to design a chart or a table to document these changes. I may take an aside here to emphasize the importance of this step of the assignment in that these students were not alive when these events occurred. I think it most interesting that they were given a voice and a stance towards history that makes what wrote relevant.
I like the next steps of the assignment George gave her students which show their computer fluency. They were then to create a web page to introduce issues crux to the assignment they addressed. Then they were to make a flyer and a collage or maps to show as evidence to support their argument. The final product was to be presented to the class which included the decisions taken to make the argument and how convincing it may have come across.
I chose Deirdre Johns’ response to this assignment because she showed me how powerful visual rhetoric can be. She took the Free Congo State flag that was flown during the period of the reign of Leopold II and transformed it into what she saw as the real truth going on in that country at that time. Figure 3 depicts the flag as it was, a blue field with a golden star centered within that field. The revised flag of Johns depicts a whole new reality of what she saw happening in that country during this period. In Figure 4, her rendition of this flag is presented.
Though I do not wish to perform a complete analysis on this image, I would like to address its main intentions. What caught my attention is the native African art in the blue field that serves as a background for the yellow star of Europe. This tells me that Africa is still the “Dark Continent.” The yellow star is the limelight in the foreground of the composition, and yet the figures in that illuminated space are the militaristic oppressors and the oppressed. I thought it a good idea that the student’s reaction to the assignment was included in the words of George:
Deirdre Johns shows the class a remaking of Leopold of Belgium’s Congo Free
State flag. Like the original, her redesign features a bold yellow star in the center
of a deep blue field. She tells the class that in her research she learned of the
reasoning for the design: the star was to signify the light of Europe being brought to
the Dark Continent. In Deirdre’s flag, the field is now covered with images of
pre-colonial African art. The gold star is covered in images of slavery, faces of
explorers, photos from the rubber and ivory trade. “This is what Europe really
brought to Congo.” she tells the class. (12)
The argument Johns makes, and I think J. Anthony Blair would agree, is that the Europeans brought slavery, not freedom, to the Congonese people. Johns was very successful with this composition because she caught the irony of this situation on both levels with an embedded collage of the star within the collage of the field of the flag. The visual seems to echo in her composition.
A third visual rhetoric assignment I will cover is that of Kristen Welch in her first-year composition class. This is what I termed earlier as a facilitated multimodal text as it is comprised of single mode genres such as selecting an artwork, then taking its photograph, writing a descriptive paragraph from the photo, then a poem, and lastly a three page essay in each action sequence. For the first writing assignment, she led her class on a field trip to the Longwood center for Visual Arts (LCVA). There was an art exhibit titled “It’s Giving Me the Creeps: Art from the Permanent Collection That Scares the Staff.” The assignment gave the students free range of selecting an art work that deeply moved them.
Figure 4 The visual rendition of the Congo Free State flag by Deirdre Johns.
After they identified the artwork, they were to take a photograph. Upon return to the classroom, the students were to compose a descriptive paragraph of the artwork and the scene in which it appeared. The next step of the writing process was to write a poem related to the artwork of five to ten lines in length. A collaborative class effort was then conducted in which two sample essays were explored for plausible thesis statements until a consensus was reached. This exercise assisted students to formulate their own thesis statement for a three page essay they would write based on the artwork they selected. The composition of the essay was guided by a prompt, or assignment sheet, which focused the students to write about what they observed. Interestingly enough, the photographs were an insufficient form of memory for the students to draw upon as they composed their writings. Instead, it was more effective for them to revisit the art gallery as Welch relates:
Although I required them to take photos of the artwork, it was not enough for them. The presence of the art in its spot on the wall at the Longwood Center for Visual Arts made it speak to them in a way that a reproduced photographic image could not. The essay and analysis became a lived experience, and the art became a part of their own lives. (258)
The final sample assignment I will address is, I believe, a pure multimodal writing product in that more than one mode, or genre, is utilized in each action sequence to construct the final text. This assignment is from the second semester of the first-year writing curriculum and is referred to as the “collaborative community writing campaign.” The particular text I will describe that the students generated with this exercise was titled “Operation Destroy Sugar House.” Briefly, the final text is a response to the planned demolition of a historic building called Sugar House in the Salt Lake City retail district for a new retail complex that included The Gap, Starbucks, and a Wal-Mart. The assignment prompts the students to 1) identify a need or important issue of a community; and 2) develop texts that address the selected need or issue. Some of the action sequences the students took to begin this assignment entailed their use of MySpace as follows:
- concise local business profiles posted under “blurbs”
- links of pertinent people and resources posted under “interests” such as:
i) an at risk city councilman who supported local businesses
ii) a recent newspaper article on the subject
iii) a poetry reading at Sugar House Coffee
- “Buy Local First Utah” logo posted under “Who I’d Like To Meet”
in order to reach out through cyberspace to establish public awareness. The second part of the assignment consisted of the students producing a scripted film. The students shot the film in their school parking lot that consisted of a set that was a facsimile of Sugar House, constructed of graham crackers, canned icing, and candy. The set was populated with action figures that facilitated the recorded dialogue between themselves as to how big business would usurp this space to further their corporate success. The film utilized many elements from our culture such as the theme song “Imperial March” from Star Wars, allusions to the Iraqi War, and the Bob Marley song “Three Little Birds.” This multimodal approach to first year composition effectively illustrates the variety of outcomes from a prompt that is so open to each group’s interpretation.
Conclusion – A Bird’s Eye View of Visual First Year Composition
In this essay, I attempted to historically trace the evolution of visual first year composition. This phenomenon is quite an interesting one in that it appears to be technology driven, first by the introduction of television as a well-established form of instruction for preschoolers and as an optional audiovisual aid in the composition classroom. When the personal computer came onto the scene and was made affordable to the general public, the development of visually driven first year composition courses were able to incorporate its technologies such as word processing programs and routines for the manipulation of digital images. The outcomes reviewed in this essay can range from hybrid texts that utilize text and the visual to a pure visual representation, such as in the case of Dierdre Johns, to a composition resultant of a collaborative effort that may culminate into a VHS tape or compact disc to be circulated for a classroom performance.
However, the design of the writing assignment has become more complex because the instructor has to anticipate the response of each student who has access to a wide variety of media and genres to fulfill the assignment, as Bickmore and Christianson state:
Whatever the work is we put before our students largely creates the conditions for
what they might invent from it. Their uptakes of our assignments are regulated by
our own vision of the constraints within which they must operate. This places an
ethical burden before us: how inventive can we be in conceiving of the widest
possible, and the most forward-thinking, parameters for our classroom practice, in
order to create the widest possible range of responses? (231)
Just as there is concern with respect to the complexity on how to design a writing assignment, there is also the question as to how to evaluate it. The first year visually based writing assignment is no longer executed in a linear manner such as encountered in the Current-Traditional paradigm of the five paragraph essay. This is because the visual composition act integrates distinct steps, or action sequences, the students carry out that may be multimodal via the incorporation of more than one genre. The grading process can be a daunting task of composition assignments, especially when they are multimodal: “The evaluation of projects like this can be somewhat holistic and require on the part of the instructor a balancing of rhetorical aim and execution, as well as the effect of the various parts of the whole. Like most evaluations, making final judgments about multimodal composition is more an art than a science” (Bickmore and Christiansen 239). The assessment of the overall project of the multimodal form of first year composition has become an assessment of each action sequence. Indeed, freshman composition has moved from emphasis on the product to an emphasis on writing as process.
A last question to consider is, how will the future first year composition classroom function and where? Once again, it seems plausible that technology is on the cusp to affect composition classes in the form of m-technologies (mobile technologies) such as smartphones to facilitate m-learning (mobile learning). Such mobile devices have all the capabilities of a computer and the advantages of these devices are numerous, such as cost, portability, learning activities conducted in any location at any time as Tiffany A. Koszalka and G. S. Ntloedibe-Kuswani state: “As a result of m-technology, instruction in the future is more likely to be conducted anytime and anywhere with any resource regardless of location. Thus, technologies and learners are simultaneously becoming more mobile” (140). These technologies are already being implemented in grade school classrooms with a high level of enthusiasm as researchers claim that “within five years, each and every K12 student, in each and every grade, in each and every school in the United states will be using a mobile learning device, 24/7. How can we say that when today 99 percent of the schools ban cell phones? Because mobile is bigger than the Internet” (Norris and Soloway 35). These researchers have been monitoring m-learning projects across the United States. A writing instructor from Ohio claims that Mobile Learning Devices (MLDs) are “definitely motivating our students to learn. For example, students ask if they can stay in from recess to do work on MLDs, and students ask if they can write more when doing a writing project” (Menchhofer 36). While m-technologies and MLDs may appear attractive, there are a number of disadvantages.
In their survey of research conducted on m-learning with portable devices, Koszalka and Ntloedibe-Kuswani identified a number of disadvantages when m-technologies were used. There were connectivity issues such as bandwidth, memory space, and internet accessibility. Other types of disadvantages had to do with the actual use of the devices that had to do with text displays that were too small, the inability the process large quantities of information, and the requirement of having to download the attained information with a computer or a printer. It seems to me that until the technology is sufficiently developed, there may not be the widespread use of m-technologies as claimed. Finally, the answer to the question of what this classroom may look like. Ntloedibe-Kuswani have stated that the mobile learning experience can be anywhere at any time and “In an ideal m-learning situation, the learners do not stay in a fixed location learning alone or together nor do they use specific resources presented to them at one point in time. The learners scatter to explore. They review, choose, and access informational or human resources they need immediately when they have questions or ideas, regardless of where they are located” (142). Maybe this type of learning is an extension of the multimodal form of freshman composition in terms of the writing process embedding itself into the life experience of the student. However, I have always been cautious in approaching technology, especially with the intoxicating effect on youth texting on these portable devices. On the other hand, I may be only showing my bias based on my generation, considering that Bashō’s credo from the 17th century on writing haiku: “if you want to write about the pine go to the pine.”
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