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.

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