Incorporating visual essays and visual arguments

As I read Selfe’s “Toward New Media Texts,” I was thinking about revisions I could make to a couple of my current assignments and cookbook assignments-in-progress.  However, I’m now realizing that my cookbook project does not contain any assignments that include only visual composition.  Selfe suggests that teachers adapt her assignments to fit their course materials (73), but I’m not sure if my incorporating visuals into previously text-only assignments does enough to keep visual composition from being a “second class” text in the course (71).  This is something I will need to consider when presenting the assignments to students.  It might be useful for me to describe Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola’s ideas about designing, collecting, and arranging information or to explain how writers can also be designers and curators.

In Selfe’s visual essay assignment, students reflect on their literacy experiences.  In my classes, I’ve asked students to draw a timeline and write a short letter about literacy experiences throughout their lives.  I think there are two different ways I could bring these two assignments together.  One way would be to ask students to create their timelines in a digital space and add visual elements.  This could be a good way to introduce visual composition right at the beginning of the course, but it also might encourage students to think of visuals as just an accompaniment to text.  Instead, I might ask students to create the timelines in the usual way but then ask them to revise the timelines toward the end of the semester using visual pieces.  In this case, I think it would be important for students to keep in mind that they are revising and not just translating their timelines.  In other words, I wouldn’t want students to feel that they had to find one-for-one visual substitutes for each piece of text on their timelines.  In some cases, this might work.  For example, a student could replace “I read Harry Potter” with an image of a book cover.  But, if the student wrote “Harry Potter was the first book that made me like reading,” how could that be replaced by a simple image? Instead, maybe the student could add images of several books they’ve enjoyed and arrange them using symbols or space to demonstrate a progression towards enjoying reading.  In her “Revising for the Web” assignment, Selfe suggests that students consider ways to reorganize or restructure their essays for a digital space and “to take advantage of the World Wide Web as a composing/design medium with expanded possibilities for information design, organization, enhancement, and presentation” (104).  Similarly, with my timeline-revision assignment, I think it would be important to encourage students to notice what ideas can be communicated more effectively with visuals vs. text, and also to see that they have a choice between translating and revising.

A “visual argument” assignment could be incorporated into my revised visual media assignment. After categorizing visual compositions according to Wysocki’s “Rhetorical Observations” assignment (175), students could list some of the observations they found most interesting and compose an argument about visual media or advertising.  Instead of creating an advertisement, and speaking the language of advertising, students would use their own voices to make an argument about visual media or advertising.  During the unit, we would have looked at some standard guidelines for analyzing visual images and/or composing visual or online texts, following the plan outlined in Wysocki’s “Other Categories for Design” (182), so that students could compare and contrast the visual strategies they noticed with the kinds of “guidelines” published for students and designers.  Another possible assignment might be to ask students to create one visual based on some of the standard guidelines for composing visual media and create another using some of the conventions they noticed during the rhetorical observations activity.


Annotated Bibliography vs. Box Logic: a revised assignment for the cookbook

“For each entry, you’ll need to:

  •  Arrange the bibliographic information for the source inMLA format.
  • Write a short summary of the source.  What are the main arguments? What is the point of this book or article? What topics are covered? If someone asked what this article/book is about, what would you say?
  • Briefly evaluate the source. Is it a useful source? How does it compare with other sources in your bibliography? Is the information reliable? Is this source biased or objective? What is the goal of this source?
  • Explain how this source is useful for your research project: Why was this source helpful to you? How does it change (or enhance) your thinking about your project?  How does it help you shape your argument? How might you use this source in your research project? Has it changed how you think about your topic?”


According to Sirc, Walter Benjamin’s book is a “true daybook for an engaged researcher” and may include “quotation (of passages of varying lengths), summary, short critical reflection, more extended quotation and/or analysis, brief sound-bite snippets, notes to himself.”  “…it’s more open, more lived than traditional text-based academic inquiry” (139).


The first voice above is from the annotated bibliography assignment I’ve used in my first-year writing class.  It asks students to summarize and critique a number of sources.  The format for each entry is the same.  The assignment asks students to make connections between the main points in the source and their own project.  On the one hand, these requirements seem to be encouraging students to put their ideas in formats used by scholars.  On the other hand, these requirements seem to be the exact reasons why some students find this assignment unapproachable.  After reading Sirc’s descriptions of Walter Benjamin’s notes, I looked back at my annotated bibliography assignment and realized that I had some questions for myself about the purpose and process for this assignment:  Why would a writer use the same format for notes on different kinds of sources?  How could a writer know how an article connects with a paper that he/she has not yet been written?

Sirc’s “trace-capturing,” based on Benjamin’s notes (138), seems to ask students to, first, consider what they’ve noticed and wondered about during their research and, second, place it in a form that is accessible to readers.  In the annotated bibliography assignment, however, rigid requirements seem to come first.  Perhaps these requirements lead students away from making their own connections between texts because they are searching for words that fit the form of the assignment instead of generating ideas first and then choosing a form that will allow them to communicate the ideas to readers.

Using Benjamin’s “day book” concept, students could choose the kind of “entry” that best fits their idea: “quotation… summary, short critical reflection, more extended quotation and/or analysis, brief sound-bite snippets, notes to [self].”  Using a blog for these entries might also help students write about the connections they see between texts and develop ideas through multiple entries over time.  These entries could be used to build-up ideas (“trace” ideas) throughout the research process.

My last wondering about all of this is: What is the purpose of an annotated bibliography?  Maybe the annotated bibliography is a reader’s genre, useful to audiences at conference presentations and readers of scholarly books.  Maybe box-logic is a writer’s genre, and of its purposes is to help writers develop ideas and to help students develop their voices as writers and researchers.

In the end, I think asking students to “trace” ideas using a blog seems like a more useful assignment than the annotated bibliography.  At the same time, I wonder how this kind of tracing of ideas could help writers (my students, me, and others) create a better annotated bibliography.  I guess I’ll keep thinking about this last issue.  Maybe the annotated bibliography is an academic genre that is worthwhile to practice; maybe it’s unnecessary departure from a student’s inquiry process.

Questions on box logic


“If we (finally) journey away from the linear norm of essayist prose… where do we go, especially in a composition classroom?”  (114)

I think many teachers (especially those of us who wouldn’t consider ourselves “tech people”), ask themselves this question when they are trying to incorporate new media into a writing class – I know I’m asking myself this question right now as I think about next steps with the Cookbook assignment.  I’m at the point where I’m realizing that adding new media will probably mean skipping something else that I’ve included in my class in the past.  So far, in my Cookbook entries, I’ve explained how new assignments might be used to replace old assignments with similar goals and outcomes.  So far, I don’t think my entries have led me to consider whether essays should be the focus of my class.  (My wiki assignment asks students to transform an essay into a wiki not write a wiki instead of an essay.)  Sirc’s question leaves me wondering a couple things…. If I continue adding new media, will it become prioritized over the essay?  If teachers begin deciding that essays are NOT the priority in composition classes, are we obligated to nominate another type of writing to take the privileged place of the essay?  Is it the kind of writing or the process of writing that Sirc is emphasizing?  If students can curate/ design/ arrange/ collect their texts, can their end products be any genre, mode or medium?  Is designing/ arranging materials to create meaning the student “version” of a scholar’s process for writing journal articles or conference presentations?


“A primary goal now in my writing classes: to show my students how their compositional future is assured if they can take an art stance to the everyday, suffusing the materiality of daily life with an aesthetic” (117).

Like statements about the relationship between genre theory and learning transfer, this statement seems to recall descriptions of the “habits of mind” in “The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” and the Learning Process Outcomes for the first-year writing courses I’ve taught.  But is Sirc suggesting that students should not just recognize purposes and contexts for writing but develop a personal manner (maybe a “sense” like sight or hearing?) that recognizes a rhetorical situation and adapts automatically?

Thoughts on “database” writing

There are two concepts from Johnson-Eilola’s “The Database and the Essay” that I’d like to incorporate into my first-year writing class (and my Cookbook): blogging to explore “articulation” work and using online spaces to practice “symbolic-analytic” composting. 

First, I’d like my students to blog throughout the semester.  I have considered this idea in the past, and looked at sites like Ning, where students setup their own page within a space designated for the class.  (As a sidenote: I’d thought one of the advantages of Ning was that it was a space just for my class to communicate with each other.   But when I tried starting my own “network,” the setup wouldn’t allow me to remove the buttons for Facebook, Twitter, etc., even though it the instructions say that you can disable that feature.)  So, instead of creating a “network” for my class, I will ask students to create their own individual blogs and comment on each other’s blogs.  As Johnson-Eilola suggests, we will begin by reading some existing blogs and analyzing them as a genre.  Early assignments will ask students to mix quoted texts from our course readings with their own analysis or commentary.  Perhaps the first posting could be questions about the course syllabus, which I could answer via the blogs.  Eventually, I would like students to blog about their own research experiences, comment on each other’s posts, and link to interesting ideas posted by classmates. 

Originally (back when I was thinking about using the Ning), I’d hoped that a blog would help students collect their reflective writing in one place so they could eventually look back over their development as writers.  I had not thought about giving specific prompts that asked students to incorporate quotes from the course reading.  I like this idea because it gives students some guidance for their first few blog postings, but it also fits with the overall idea of using a blog for reflection because the prompts would be asking students to find connections between the reading and their own experiences and/or writing projects.

Johnson-Eilola suggests that authors can be more like “designers or deconstructivist information architects” (222) and that sites like Plastic are “gathered texts” which “themselves compose a larger text” (216.)  Though Johnson-Eilola is describing a collaborative text, I can imagine my students using these same strategies to create their own (individual) digital reflections, “gathered” ideas from their research, from classmates’ blogs and from their own blogs.  By quoting, linking and adding their own commentary and explanation, students could reflect on their experience throughout the whole semester.  Something I’m still thinking about is whether students should collect these materials throughout the semester or bring them all together at the end.  It might make the most sense to have students focus on blogging during the semester and then develop ideas on their reflection page later while practicing “symbolic-analytic” composing.  The wiki assignment I posted earlier this semester also asks students to consider how they are presenting their writing in a digital space.  Having both a wiki project and an individual reflection assignment would give students the opportunity to practice this kind of symbolic-analytic composing in both collaborative and individual settings.



Using Wysocki’s Rhetorical Observations activities to revise advertising project

While reading Wysocki’s Rhetorical Observations activity sequence, I was thinking about ways to revise a “visual media” project I’ve used in my first-year writing class.  In that project, students find a print advertisement and a magazine with two different audiences, redesign the ad to target the magazine’s audience, and write a reflective essay on the choices they made during this process.  In the reflective essay, it is also important for students to incorporate ideas from the course reading, an article that details a theory on visual media.

In one of my in-class activities, students worked (in groups) to identify themes and patterns in a magazine and create a collage-style “profile” for the magazine’s audience.  Looking back on this activity now, I think it’s interesting that some of my students were moving toward noticing the “connections among compositional strategies, audiences, and design purposes” Wysocki describes.  For example, students noticed that companies often used red fonts and products in advertisements for cooking or food, and often used green fonts and symbols in advertisements that emphasize earth-friendly products.  In their reflective essays, some students also drew connections between conventions and target audience.  Students who analyzed a bike magazine noticed that nearly all the ads featured broad landscapes and suggested scenes of “adventure.”  Similarly, after analyzing a magazine about dogs, one student remarked that advertisers could sell nearly any product if they put a cute little dog in the picture with it.  Another student noted in his essay that many ads in women’s magazines seem to include graphics of flowers.  He then used that information to explain why he’d added flowers to the advertisement he created.

I’ve used this project in class twice, and I’ve noticed that many students have moments like those I described above, finding a connection between what we called a “convention” of advertising and an author’s purpose and target audience.  Although I think these moments were very valuable for students, I think my project may have encouraged them to stop short of a larger understanding of the impact of visual media.  I think Wysocki’s Rhetorical Observation activity will help me revise my activities and project in a few important ways.

  • In some cases, my students had a difficult time finding advertisements and magazines (for other audiences) that interested them.  Also, the main “moment” of noticing design patterns often came at the end of the unit.  In Wysocki’s “Comparing and Categorizing Designs,” students have the opportunity to notice numerous patterns in visual images, and to categorize and analyze many strategies.  By using the steps built into Wysocki’s activity (collecting, categorizing, analyzing examples), I hope to encourage students to notice designers’ compositional strategies throughout the project.  Also, I’ll also revise the assignment so that students can analyze all kind of images not just advertising.
  • In my in-class activity, students only analyzed one audience, which may have influenced the patterns they noticed.  The steps in Wysocki’s “Comparing and Categorizing Designs” encourage students to notice patterns and strategies before linking them to specific audiences.  I think revising my activity to include these steps will encourage students to notice compositional strategies before audience.  It will also give students the opportunity to study more than one audience.
  • Lastly, in my project, we didn’t spend enough time critically analyzing the design principles described in our course reading.  Although I encouraged students to view the reading as a theory (and not facts or “rules” for design), we did not take Wysocki’s approach and explicitly discusse the differences between design principles in handbooks and the design strategies students observed in images.

Mapping experiences with genre and research

While reading through Wysocki’s “Opening New Media to Writing,” I found several activities and assignments that I wanted to adapt for my classes.  The “Mapping Readings” activity stood out the most because I think it could be an interesting assignment for either of the first-year writing courses I’ve taught.  In both cases, students would “map” together their own ideas, concepts or main points from readings, and (possibly) pictures or artifacts.

In one course, students could map ideas together from their two genre-analysis essays to synthesize what they, personally, have learned about genre in the course.  In the other course, where students spend a large portion of the semester writing an ethnography-based research essay, students could translate their research papers into maps to depict important ideas about the community they studied or to illustrate their own experiences with research.  For both assignments, students would need to decide their own “materials” and themes but, in thinking through the assignment, I came up with some possibilities.  My notes are below.  Right now, I think I would probably provide students with a list of possible materials but not a list of possible themes… I might change my mind about that later though.

Genre-based map

Possible materials:

  • Pieces of students own essays: familiar genre, unfamiliar genre
  • Published examples students gathered for the genres studied
  • Course readings: genre article, published literacy narratives, handouts on genre analysis
  • Students own literacy narratives from the beginning of the semester
  • Other materials from students’ experiences at college (ex: acceptance letter, description of campus events, newspaper articles, readings from other classes.)

Possible themes:

  • My experience studying genre
  • Important ideas learned by studying genre
  • Genre analysis strategies applied to other courses or writing activities
  • Tracing the process of creating my own example of a specific genre

Research-based map:

Possible materials:

  • Pieces of students’ own ethnographic research essay, research proposal, field notes, interview transcripts
  • Excerpts from students’ annotated bibliographies and the text sources
  • Course readings on fieldworking, communities of practice, example ethnographies
  • Other materials from students’ experiences at college (ex: acceptance letter, description of campus events, newspaper articles, readings from other classes.)

Possible themes:

  • Description/illustration of my community
  • My experience with ethnographic research and/or fieldworking
  • Purposes of or strategies for fieldworking

For a first-year writing class, I like the idea of having students include materials from their own college experiences.  However, I’m concerned that too many personal materials could steer the main point of a map away from course topics.  Should I require certain materials or a certain number of course materials?  Should I only require that the main point of the map is related to course material?  Other concerns I need to continue working on:  How do I create steps to “scaffold” this assignment?  (Possibilities: creating visual arguments in class, write crots on a single theme in various genres.)  How will I assess the project?  Should smaller pieces of the project be due before the final product?

Variation on this assignment: have students map their projects before writing an essay, and use only course texts, research texts and notes, their own journal entries or updates.  The map could help students identify main points for the essay.

Adding conventions of Grammar B to Multi-genre unit

While reading “Grammars of Style: New Options in Composition,” I was thinking about similarities between asking students to practice “alternate grammar” and asking students to write in a variety of genres.  In our first-year writing classes, we talk about genre conventions and how to enact (or avoid) conventions in our own writing.  Could we have a similar discussion in first-year writing around conventions of Grammar B?  (Am I writing in double-voice yet?)  We discuss genre conventions to encourage students to consider the social purposes behind genres and the (formal and stylistic) conventions that make genres what they are.  Perhaps practicing sentence fragments, labyrinthine sentences, and lists would lead to similar discussions about conventions.

Since I’m planning the multi-genre unit for my first-year writing class right now, I’m thinking about ways to use this set of Grammar B “things to do” in my class.  In this unit, students will write about their research findings (from the previous unit) in several different genres.  Crots, double-voice passages, and lists could be added to the possible genres, but I’m also thinking that practicing some of the “things to do”/conventions in class could lead to interesting discussions on style.  For example, students could translate a paragraph of their essay into a list, like the passages on page 140 where Whitman’s biographical information is translated into a list.  I will probably use this example in class because it demonstrates a change in style without a change in content, which highlights the effect of a change in writing style.  Students would need to choose a specific passage to translate into a list, and explain why the style does or does not work for that passage.

Response to Halavais’s “Searching”

“Many searches are related to planned action … The process is likely to involve not seeking an exact solution to a problem, but rather gathering a set of sources and information that can then be evaluated and analyzed by the searcher” (Halavais 43.) 

This quote reminds me of two incidents:

1.)    A class activity in which I asked my students to use Wikipedia as a starting point for research.  I created a handout with a series of steps that asked students to scan entries related to their topic, write down key concepts and terms, reflect on those terms and their topic, and then find links/sources listed on the entry.  The handout asked students to evaluate the audience, purpose, credibility and relevance of each source.  Some students examined Wikipedia pages carefully, writing down bits of interesting information and linking to sources, and having “aha” moments.  Some students seemed bored or frustrated with the first few steps of the process, never finding a path towards interesting, new information.

Halavais claims that, “[d]ecomposing a complex search problem into its constituent elements and analytically mining the web represent what we commonly think of as “critical thinking,” and search patterns may represent this” (44.)  If this is true, does my list-of-steps handout create missed opportunities for critical thinking?  Maybe this depends on whether students see Wikipedia as a useful part of their research process or just another assigned activity.

2.)    A few months ago I found myself searching for information directly related to a “planned action.”  I found that my dog had eaten about one-quarter of a package of sugar-free gum.  Based only on the logic that people shouldn’t swallow gum and so dogs probably shouldn’t either (and missing entirely the fact that the gum contains who-knows-what chemicals that dogs shouldn’t eat), I decided to “google it.”  I immediately noticed a trend in the information I found: nearly everyone writing on this topic seemed to know that xylitol, a chemical in sugar-free gum, is poisonous for dogs.  However, a quick glance through the varied advice of dog owners told me everything from “Do not wait for symptoms of shock – rush your dog to the vet now!” to “No need to do anything, just wait and see if your dog can blow bubbles!”  I called the vet’s office, and an assistant figured the amount of xylitol my dog had eaten based on the brand and flavor of the gum (who knew they could do that?) and compared it with my dog’s weight.  They said she’d be OK.  If she’d eaten twice as much or a different flavor, it could have been very dangerous.  (Gum is now kept under lock-and-key at my house!)

In my xylitol search story, I was like Halavais’s searcher who doesn’t “know precisely what she means” (34.)  I began by searching something like “dogs” and “chewing gum,” which led me to the essential information about xylitol.  Searching for “dogs” and “xylitol” lead me to long lists of extreme advice: rush to the vet vs. do nothing.  Finally talking with the vet helped me understand the array of advice – it’s more dangerous for smaller dogs, and certain brands (and even flavors!) contain very different amounts of xylitol, which isn’t something listed on the package. 

In my search story, I evaluated my search results and reacted with increasing urgency at each stage.  Since I didn’t know, at first, that the topic of my search was a poisonous substance, I was able to “learn” and “discover” (34) just enough to evaluate my situation and call on an expert to “find” an actual answer.  Just as Google harnesses our collective ability to spell (50) but lacks the ability to spell, it also harnesses our collective answers to a problem while lacking a true answer to the problem.  The evaluation and analysis of the searcher (43) is the most important part of the search process.  Because, as Selber points out in his chapter on Rhetorical Literacy, “dialogical habits” help practitioners (and students) connect thought and action, perhaps the focus of my Wikipedia lesson should have been on reflection and students’ sharing their processes with each other. 

One way to address the engagement issue, mentioned at the beginning of this entry, might be to have students work in groups to investigate an issue they found mutually interesting.  Murray said that writers need to develop an “other self” that can be critical of their own work, but that until that “other self” is developed, other writers (or teachers) can act as a substitute.  Perhaps asking students to solve a problem together will encourage them to act as each other’s “other self,” reflecting and deliberating on the process they took to solve a problem that is relevant to them. 

Using TagCrowd in class discussion

During our class discussion about Wordle and TagCrowd this week, I was thinking about how TagCrowd might have been useful for my own students during a recent activity.  The activity was intended to be a rehearsal for writing entries on an annotated bibliography, and we practiced and talked about critical reading, summarizing an author’s ideas “in your own words,” and integrating another author’s ideas with your own research topic.  During the activity, my students read an excerpt from an Etienne Wenger article on Communities of Practice (CoP), summarized it and wrote about the connection between the concept of CoP and the communities they are currently studying for their major research projects in the course.  At each stage, we stopped to talk.  We summarized the main points as a group, and then students shared various ways they had made connections between the article and their own research.

Looking back at my class activity, I can see how TagCrowd could be used to help students relate the article to their own research topics.  If I put the excerpt we read into TagCrowd, I notice that our discussion did cover most of the larger words on the screen: community, practice, member, shared, domain, etc.  However, we did not discuss a few other key ideas that are large-ish on the screen; for example:  knowledge, learning, and interact.  Perhaps this screen could have steered our discussion in some interesting, and unexpected, directions.  Our discussion focused mostly on whether or not various groups that students are studying could be categorized as communities of practice.  It was a useful discussion, I think, but I wonder if the TagCrowd screen could have helped students make different connections with their own projects, too.  For example, considering what “knowledge” or “learning” means for their community might have led students in interesting directions as they continue their research.

A quick thought on Selber’s critical literacy

“In use contexts, dominant discourses associated with computer policies, computer classroom designs, and curricular requirements should be easily accessible to students.  Although there are other discourses that could be examined, these areas should serve as productive sites for critical investigation because their discourses are public and affect student life on a daily basis” (Selber 113.)

As I read the Critical Literacy section of the book, I was thinking about ways to address these ideas in my own class.  I could imagine having a discussion in class that pointed to examples of commercial influence discourses around technology (107), possibly starting with other kinds of discourse (like food, energy drinks) that are heavily influenced by commercialism or advertising and moving toward discussing technology (“I’m a PC”/”I’m a Mac,” and more specific discussions about the availability and arrangement of computer labs and classrooms on campus.)  When I got to the section above, however, I realized that even my own assignments should be a site for critical examination of “design cultures” and “use contexts.”  For example, it would benefit students to think critically about the space they are working in during the wiki assignment I described earlier this week.  In fact, as Selber points out, the discourses students encounter first-hand are the places where it is most beneficial for students to address this kind of critical stance.  Students might first reflect on the process (and the product) of the writing assignments they are doing, noticing differences between writing a single-authored paper and collectively contributing some of the same information to a wiki.  Perhaps another step would be to critically analyze an example like Wikipedia that has become such a part of our social culture that we are in danger of seeing it as “neutral” in terms of design and use.