F. 13 – From Page to Screen: Composition and Media Convergence
- Sid Dobrin: “Visual Writing”
- Joe Hardin: “Page to Screen to Audio”
- Sean Morey: “From Screen to Screen: Teaching With/Writing In Video”
This was by far my most anticipated panel of CCCCs, and it lived up to my expectations and then some. Dobrin was one of the first theorists I encountered last semester and, though I’ve mostly read his work in ecocomposition, I’ve seen a few videos he’s done on social networking and recognize his importance in the field. I had never heard of Hardin or Morey before, but both held their own next to Dobrin. It sounds stupid to call a session “life changing,” but I definitely left this panel with a very different mindset.
Dobrin’s talk was simply titled “Visual Writing,” and he started off extremely broad. He opened by discussing the state of visual rhetoric in our field, which I think he would characterize as underdeveloped or maybe underrepresented. He focused at first on the institutional view of visual rhetoric, particularly the fact that the Writing Program Administration (WPA) Outcomes, which are seen by many as defining the areas the field sees as important, say nothing about visuals.
Interestingly, after writing about this on the WPA List Serv, Dobrin was able to get this topic added to the agenda for the meeting of the Executive Council of Writing Program Administrators, which was to be held the next day at this year’s CCCCs. This definitely has ramifications for the future of textbook writing, if not for setting a new focus area for composition in general.
His paper then quickly shifted gears and focused on what it means to write visually and why this is something important for composition instructors to teach. Dobrin believes that “visual writing” is a redundancy, and that creating a distinction between visuals and text doesn’t make sense. He defines writing as “symbolic systems of graphic communication used to represent thought,” and makes his point by describing different communication systems that reject alphabetic text in favor of images.
Dobrin discussed a number of writing systems in general, as well as more specific theorists/organizations, which have created projects to develop visual systems of communication. Examples include Leibniz’s attempt to form a language outside of the “politics of the alphabet”; the pictorial language known as the International System of TYpographic Picture Education (ISOTYPE); and the partnership between translation corporation Enlaso and fast food chain McDonalds that aimed to create a transnational symbolic language in order to develop a system of communicating nutritional information by visuals.
Dobrin’s main point is that visual writing is far more complex than it seems and that creating a distinction jeopardizes reductively transforming visual writing into either just visuals or just writing. According to Dobrin, “We need to see a complex ecology of writing.”
My favorite point he made involved the importance of post- and trans-human technology for developing new ways of thinking about visuals. Dobrin (and the other presenters) placed a surprising amount of importance on the scientific/physical dimensions of vision in order to make a point that visuals are inherently more complex than we traditionally believe. Dobrin showed a video of BrainPort Vision Technology to illustrate this point. BrainPort uses sophisticated technology in the form of tongue sensors to create a representation of vision using taste as the primary sensation to provide sight to the blind.
I believe this panel provides a number of interesting insights into the current status of visual rhetoric within the field. First and foremost, Dobrin’s discussion of the WPA Outcomes illustrates that visual rhetoric is seen as an important part of the field that is currently not as widely recognized or legitimized as many want it to be. Second, Dobrin placed a very strong emphasis on technology, more specifically post/trans-human technology that strives to move beyond logocentric interpretation. This is something that Hardin and Morey discuss more in relation to video and audio.
For me, the most exciting thing about this panel is the idea that writing is a far more complex concept that requires serious considerations that are very different than traditional alphabetic text. In fact, all of the speakers on this panel placed emphasis on the importance of moving away from writing systems that align with traditional expectations of what written language/communication should do—i.e. representation, evocation, reference, etc.
In a way this is very freeing and inspiring to me; I feel as though I am unencumbered to do fall in line with past-scholars of writing; and even though someone like Sid Dobrin has the authority, experience, and clout to explore these ideas more fully, this session really felt like a challenge or invitation or imploration for others to explore these ideas in different ways.
Due to a lack of time and space I will not provide a detailed summary of Morey or Hardin’s discussions here, but I have added my notes to the public folder in the VizRhet Drop Box.
C.14 – Teaching, Reading, and Writing in New Media
- Barclay Barrios: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Digital Literacy…”
- Richard Miller: “Learning by Doing: A Year of Thinking in Public”
- Cynthia Selfe: “A More Capacious Conception”
Prior to this panel I spoke to Dr. Salvo briefly and he asked if I thought this panel would count as visual rhetoric. I hadn’t marked it as such in my schedule but I thought it sounded interesting anyways. Afterwards I said, “Emphatically yes.” This panel on literacy and digital media included a very, very strong endorsement of visual rhetoric as a necessary component of theory and pedagogy within our field. And because it featured heavy-hitters like Miller and Selfe (both of whom we read in ENGL 591 – Composition Theory), it was one of the better-attended sessions I went to at Cs.
This was not advertised as a visual rhetoric panel, however; the title of the panel doesn’t include terms like “visual” or “image,” nor do the individual paper titles indicate that they will discuss visual rhetoric. Instead, this panel is focused on broader and better recognized debates within the field including digital literacy, public rhetorics, and digital books; yet visual rhetoric, as a theoretical and pedagogical concern, played a major supporting role in each speaker’s presentation.
The second half of Barclay Barrios’ talk, entitled “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Digital Literacy…,” stretched digital literacy to include serious concerns about privacy, freedom, ethics, and panoptic surveillance. Barrios ended his discussion on digital literacy, which he argues cannot be defined because of its inherent “squishiness” as a fixed term, by discussing the term sousveillance, also referred to as inverse surveillance. He discusses sousveillance in reference to electronic teaching and course management tools like Black Board, Safe Assign, and Drop Box, which track, record, export, and allow instructors to monitor students’ activities, actions, thought processes, and the like.
Sousveillance, he argues, is important as much for our students as it is for us—as inverse surveillance, sousveillance is all about the many monitoring the few. As Barrios puts it, “using technology to hold a mirror up to bureaucratic organizations and confront the ethics of an organization or individual’s digital literacies.” In other words, students need to be made aware of the digital world their live in and we, as compositionists, need to understand how we are digitally literate ourselves.
While a lot of this stuff scares me, I am very, very interested in the idea of sousveillance, particularly when it comes to the role of social networking and smart phones. This fall I am teaching a Digital Rhetorics approach to introductory composition and I plan to have students analyze, explore, and use their experience with smart phones and social media.
Richard Miller’s “Learning by Doing: A Year of Thinking in Public” was more overtly visually-based than Barrios’ talk. Miller asserts that our field needs to strive to work in a digital environment instead of simply talking about it or forcing our students to—this is why Miller refuses to publish anything in either traditional print or online mediums; instead, he recently only posts to his blog, Text 2 Cloud.
Composing, Miller claims, is no longer preparing thoughts for text on paper, but manipulating images, graphs, sounds, animations, etc. Miller elaborates on many of Barrios’ concerns with privacy, but focuses more specifically on our students’ awareness (or lack thereof) of digital ethics and implications of online activity; an important aspect of this, however, is our responsibility as instructors to be aware of how digital culture has changed youth culture and to take that into account in our own work. “We need to throw ourselves into the ocean and learn how to compose digitally before we can teach it,” Miller argues.
Cynthia Selfe, too, argues for the increased recognition of digital publishing within Rhetoric and Composition. She is very critical of what she perceives as the “persistent professional habit of limiting scholarship to alphabetic, printed materials.” According to Selfe, recent events have pushed digital publishing into a more visible position within the field, but there are still many who are critical, hesitant, or resistant to it; additionally, as was brought up in the Q&A session, there is still a lack of institutional support in a lot of places for digital scholarship.
Selfe cites the 2006 MLA task force report on the standard of print monographs as a recent turning point. Her main argument wasn’t to discuss the history of digital publishing, though; instead, she made a very persuasive case for the vital importance, potential, and value or digital publishing by discussing several prominent examples, mostly from the Computers and Composition Digital Press. She provides an overview of several projects published on the CCDP, including Technologies of Wonder by Susan Delagrange and Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times edited by Patrick Berry, Gail Hawisher, and Cynthia Selfe.
Selfe argues that printed text limits the ability of scholarship to escape what she calls the “pull of print’s intellectual gravity”; to do so we need to turn to alternatives, like the work published on the CCDP, which place alphabetic text “in direct conversation” (or convergence) with video, animations, sound, images, etc. If we stop feeling a professional attachment to printed, alphabetic text then we will no longer be encumbered and tied down to “book-ness.” “We can’t teach this to students,” Self argues, “unless we’re humble enough to learn it ourselves.” Her main point is that the more “semiotic channels” we have available to us as scholars the more effective our scholarship will become and the more we will grow as a discipline. I had never heard the word “capacious” that she used in her title, but it means “having a lot of space inside; roomy.”
To return to the question Dr. Salvo posed to me—is this visual rhetoric? Most certainly; but not exactly in the way I had previously imagined it. Barrios, Miller, and Selfe are not advocating the study of visuals per se; instead, they are arguing that visuals, images, and digital technologies need to be respected, explored, promoted, and implemented within our own work and our classrooms. Selfe envisions a more capacious conception of digital literacy, and I can’t imagine this happening without visual rhetoric coming up again and again, as it did during this panel.
The visual, vision, sight, optics, surveillance, sousveillance, digital representation, video, projection—these are terms that are no longer relegated to a sub-field of rhet/comp, but have now broken into the center ring of the discipline. Understanding visual rhetoric, then, is imperative to understanding some of the pressing problems facing the field today.
By popular demand, I will eventually type up my notes and post them in the same way I did for the Dobrin/Morey/Hardin panel.
J. Featured Session – Access: A Happening
Samantha Blackmon, Qwo-Li Driskill, Paul Kei Matsuda, Margaret Price, Cindy Selfe, Melanie Yergeau, Amy Vidali
Of the three sessions I chose to write about, this final one is perhaps the least overtly related to visual rhetoric; however, I would argue that visual rhetoric played a critical role in understanding the argument of several presenters in this panel. As a Featured Session, this panel, entitled “Access: A Happening,” gave 7 different scholars each 10 minutes or so to make a presentation about access generally constructed. Like many others, I went in support of Dr. Blackmon and to see a panel I probably would not have gone to otherwise; I am very glad I attended.
Of these seven presentations (technically six—Selfe’s was a brief shout-out for a project she was gathering data for) four focused on issues of access that are tangentially related to visual rhetoric. Like the Barrios/Miller/Selfe panel, this was not dealing with visual rhetoric in the sense that we frequently talk about it in our class or to our students; instead, this is about the importance of thinking rhetorically about visual communication and the ways in which we provide or impede access to information. So what do video games (Blackmon), web accessibility (Vidali), multimedia accessibility (Price), and self-stimulating behavior of people with autism (Yergeau) have to do with visual rhetoric? What don’t they have to do with visual rhetoric?
Each of these presentations was about the ways in which communication is transmitted through different visual means and how as a field, as instructors, as scholars, and as a society we are very frequently unaware when our communication isn’t accessible to everyone. Accessibility is contingent on and influenced by a wide variety of factors, but in each case it comes down to how attentive and aware we are to the details of our rhetorical/communicative acts. As rhetoricians it is our responsibility to practice careful and attentive analysis of situations so as not to disrupt our message or alienate our audience, and as compositionists we need to be aware of the values that were are imbuing to our students.
But at the focus isn’t just an awareness of accessibility, but a realization that visual communication comes with problems and limitations. Price illustrated this nicely in her presentation when she put a painting of this photograph up on the projector: the painting of dead male chicks in a hatchery dumpster is very powerful visual rhetoric indeed; but as Price argues, unless (and possibly even if) a presenter takes the time to describe the image in detail, the presentation will always be inaccessible to some portion of the audience, thereby robbing it of the rhetorical power of the image.
Yergeau’s story of her experience as a person with autism was also very powerful in its use of visual rhetoric, or more specifically performative rhetoric. She argued the self-stimulating activity—which could include clapping, rocking, shaking, touching of the face, or other repeated gestures—represent rhetorical movement and that denying someone the ability to do “stimming” behavior (as she called it) us denying that person’s “communicative ability.” And this is where visual rhetoric comes in—her advice to instructors for making their classrooms more accessible involved instructional design, which she describes as “creating a classroom environment in which difference is more accepted.”
Again, the connections to visual rhetoric aren’t as explicit as other panels, but they are very much still present. Though none of these panelists were arguing for the importance of visual rhetoric in accessibility, they all were urging—whether explicitly or not—a more informed visual/rhetorical way of thinking about scholarship, teaching, and living. But as Price argues, “It’s not simple and we shouldn’t make it seem simple.” Accessibility is a complex issue and visual component of communication is only party of the issue. However, I think there is a lot in this panel to suggest the rhetoric of accessibility must involve an awareness of visual rhetoric.
Summary: The State of Visual Rhetoric at CCCCs
From these three panels I’ve constructed a very simple sketch of what visual rhetoric looks like within the field of Rhetoric and Composition. I think the most important thing is the sources of influence: the institution, the field, instructors, scholars, students, and society all exert a strong influence on the decisions made, the policies enacted, the ideas given prominence, the theories rejected or accepted, etc. Next, I think emerging technology, medium, language systems, accessibility, difference, digitality, publishing, social constructs, privacy, individuality, and freedom all currently play a crucial role in both what we consider to be visual rhetoric and the more general concerns of Rhetoric and Composition as a discipline. These three panels really allowed me to expand the ways I think about visual rhetoric and to identify a much broader application of some of the discussions, debates, and questions that have been discussed in our class this semester.