mid-zummer reading aiming a new direcction

Since the start of the summer – actually, since end of spring semester because summer begins tomorrow – I’ve reading in and working with visual rhetoric and new media writing:

– Wysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Selfe, and Sirc, Writing New Media
– Horn, Visual Language
– Hocks and Kendrick, Eloquent Images
Multimodal Discourse and Reading Images by Kress and Van Leeuwen
– Handa’s collection Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World
– for remediation Bolter and Grusin

and re-reading a couple on e-rhetoric

– Crystal, Language and the Internet
– Baron, Alphabet to email

I started reading to design Elements of E-Rhetoric and to re-design of the web design and web writing courses. I want to shift the emphasis from the rule-governed and towards the rhetorical, from the strictly functional and towards the semiotic: “Ever thought about what the menus mean rather than just how they look?”

But the more I look into new media and visual rhetoric, the more I think about bringing visual composition into FYC. This year’s default text for FYC has some elements of visual rhetoric in it – not a lot, and what it does have is mainly about interpreting images rather than creating them, but it’s a beginning.

Then, this morning I was reading TechRhet comments this years’s C&W. Lots of mentions of “the end of composition” (aka bringing visual into the first-year classroom), and new media and visual rhetoric. Even a mention of a second-semester required course in multimedia literacy. There was a similar buzz during C&W in 1988, I think. HyperCard had been out for a year, so we were talking about students creating multimedia hypertextual productions in HyperCard. Saw a couple of interesting ones. And I remember “the end of compostion” being discussed even then. Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe we can help it along.

At BSU, we have a required “oral component” in our FYC requirement. A few years back, the required speech course was cut from lib ed, but the lib ed committee thought that practice in public speaking was important enough to keep – in some form, in some course. So it was bolted on to FYC. It makes sense. First-year comp is, at root, a course in public rhetoric, although we tend to emphasize invention, arrangement, and style rather than delivery; and we tend to focus on the written rather than the spoken.

When I work with the oral component in ENGL 1101 and 1102, I ask students to put together a panel presentation. In the past, it’s been dominantly oral and modeled on the kind of public panel the students would use in classes or in public: each person presents, then the panel takes questions. But there’s no reason not to add a visual component to an oral presentation, or to shift the presentation completely to a multimodal presentation. I’m not talking PPoint mode: the strict bullet-list presentation of bullet-list thinking. I’m thinking more on the line of what some of the students in Teaching Writing with Technology presented as finals: poster sessions; illustrated discussions; piss-takes of PowerPointing… One semester, a group of students in ENGL 1101 to the presentation into a new area when they wrote and acted in a skit called “The Terrors of Themewriting” by parodying South Park.

I’m thinking more like box-logic, or a full-page image and text layout, or an image and text comic that makes a logical argument (we have the software for this), or an infomural poster, or small website or a single web page, or a photo/weblog design, or a multi-media presentation in iPhoto or iMovie … any number of forms that provide some practice in bringing word and image together. Some of the weblog projects from Blogs and Wikis illustrate what I have in mind.

The most demanding side of this idea – swapping out the oral component for something multimodal – is not the technical stuff; enough students come with enough technical expertise to make it work, and we have the technical capabilities to do this. The most demanding part of this is developing a way of talking about, thinking about, the relation of image and text – exactly the issues the work I’m reading are working through. The emphasis would not be on aesthetic design but on rhetoric and meaning… That’s going to stretch us all (me and the GAs because I know senior faculty wouldn’t go for this) into looking closely at both classical and contemporary rhetoric.

Tomorrow’s solstice. I have a long day to think about it.

bsu email down again

Frustrating. BSU’s faculty email is down for the second time in a week. Last time, we were out for a day and a half and lost the mail. Those trying to contact me can use the alternative: mcmorgan at paulbunyan dot net

a phish devoid of content

Stanley Fish has a new one in the NY Times: Devoid of Content.

His main assertion:

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

Hear the spiritual overtones in that last sentence? Fish’s way of addressing fyc, then, of helping students find The Way, is to teach it as an introductory linguistics course. Students devise a language, creating the linguistic principles of the language along the way.

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions – between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like – that English enables us to make.

This is nothing new. British scholars did it with English in the 17th and 18th century: that’s why Teaching Grammar has become an exercise in applying Latin grammar to Anglo syntax. And, at bottom, it seems like an interesting course to teach – if tedious to take.

Here’s the twister. In taking on this linguistic construction project,

the students will naturally and effortlessly conform to the restriction I announce on the first day: “We don’t do content in this class. By that I mean we are not interested in ideas – yours, mine or anyone else’s. We don’t have an anthology of readings. We don’t discuss current events. We don’t exchange views on hot-button issues. We don’t tell each other what we think about anything – except about how prepositions or participles or relative pronouns function.” The reason we don’t do any of these things is that once ideas or themes are allowed in, the focus is shifted from the forms that make the organization of content possible to this or that piece of content, usually some recycled set of pros and cons about abortion, assisted suicide, affirmative action, welfare reform, the death penalty, free speech and so forth. At that moment, the task of understanding and mastering linguistic forms will have been replaced by the dubious pleasure of reproducing the well-worn and terminally dull arguments one hears or sees on every radio and TV talk show.

I’m pretty certain Fish is having us on. He’s irked with the level of discourse in fyc when it’s done as recycled thought cast as clever or insightful. And fair enough: there really is little to be learned by mindlessly reiterating the tried and true, putting on the pose and posture – just as there’s little to be learned from mindless drill in comma use. But Fish knows he can’t separate the form of articulation from the idea meaningfully; that function bangs into meaning at the sentence level. He knows that.

Fish is phishing, or at least trolling. He’s seeing what kind of deep sea creatures and bottom feeders he can bring to the surface for air. He’s unbalancing the stock-in-trade favorites of thousands of comp instructors. As an antidote to a course that focuses on the five paragraph theme, he’s proposing a course entirely on grammar. And that’s calculated to send a few comp instructors out of the shoot like a pinball.

Here’s more bait.

And when there is the occasional and inevitable lapse, and some student voices his or her “opinion” about something, I don’t have to do anything; for immediately some other student will turn and say, “No, that’s content.” When that happens, I experience pure pedagogical bliss.

Gonna bite?

now, with randomness

Spent a long, quiet, rainy afternoon adding (and recoding) a wordpress plugin to randomize the banner. Why? Because sometimes changing the banner changes the sense of the posting. If the expression is just right, the banner can provide commentary on the posting. Sometimes. Sometimes it’s just illustration.


Just upgraded WordPress to v 1.5. Went smoothly, but I had worked out the changes in the theme formatting on the Loft server and then moved it to biro. Still, gotta hand it to the WordPress coders for making upgrades easy and refining the themes.

a reminder: mechanics are technologies, too

From Exactly 2 Cents Worth: Teach Students to Communicate — 05-18-05, a reminder to teach beyond the sentence and paragraph.

If we teach [students] to communicate, then we do not merely teach them the mechanics of writing, but art of communicating convincingly and compellingly — to accomplish goals by influencing other people. In addition, if communicating in the 21st century means producing messages that successfully compete for attention, then at the same time that we are teaching children the art of communicating with text, we should also teach them to communicate with images, animation, video, and music.

…students must move way beyond being mere consumers of information. We must make them skilled producers of content — information artisans.

Good term: information artisans. Not hacks (five paragraph theme) but artisans, with emphasis on crafting and technique. Practicing rhetoricians.