Post written by 8 minute read
May 7, 2013

Discomposed Composing in a First Year Writing Classroom

Contribute by Molly Parsons.

I just completed my first year of graduate school at the University of Michigan, and my first year teaching a first year composition course. I created this comic book as a way to explore and share the experience of creating my first digital composition unit for my students. I hope that it is valuable to instructors who find themselves considering undertaking a similar project, but (like me) lack the technological skills or pedagogical understanding. It’s for those who (also like me) are just a bit suspicious of introducing text-less compositions into the writing classroom.

Link: Multimodal-Me by Molly Parsons.

For me, this whole process was a working out of skepticism. I wanted answers to questions, gosh darn it, and I am one of those people who have trouble accepting answers without having gone through the (often) punishing process of digging them up myself. I was a middle school and high school English teacher before I began studying at Michigan. In that role, computer technology and I had a very simple relationship:

But beyond these tool-ish affordances, I felt uneasy about how technology was sneaking into my classroom. The teacher-lunchroom talk often ran the way of, ‘Kids these days…with their text-message language…If I get one more essay that has a smiley face emoticon…” (bluster, bluster, bluster). I saw some teachers take up technology as an essay-grading tool. And though I don’t think computers can grade, I knew why there was such happy excitement about this possibility—when you have 150-180 students it just isn’t possible to grade (writing) and plan for class and be a happy, well-balanced person.

I saw other teachers take their students to the lab (reserving it for weeks at a time!) only to have them type essays on Word that, in the good ol’ days, would’ve been written in those little blue test books or in a spiral notebook. Technology seemed helpful sometimes but necessary only occasionally.

Then I got to graduate school and people all around me kept talking about how technology was transforming learning! Writing! Thinking! (If this was my comic book, I would add a picture here of me squinching my eyebrows together and shrugging my shoulders.) And I thought, Hmmmm. That sounds nice…

Nice in the way that any idea sounds when it is spouted by someone who hasn’t taught—nice for a classroom that I’m not sure exists. But it seemed that if I was really going to push against this claim of transformation, I better know what exactly everyone says computer technology can do. I had questions that needed to be answered:

  1. What can I say using digital technologies that I can’t say with conventional pen-to-paper or even fingers-to-keyboard technologies?
  2. Should ENGLISH teachers be tasked with training students how to use all the new technology? How to write and read all the new genres that are cropping up in digital environments? (With the specter of standardized testing trolling the hallways of K-12 schools, this seemed like an awfully big additional ‘burden’ to heap onto the poor English teacher’s curriculum plate.)
  3. If we do need to teach students to make movies or write blogs or tweets or… How will those things change the way that students write and read? What, if anything, can they add to an English curriculum?

I wanted my audience to have the chance to ask the questions with me, to partake in my process of discovery. I think that I was successful, kind of. But in order to make this sort of project communicate with the force and depth of writing, I now know that I need to learn a LOT more about the genre—and the software (I used ComicLife to compose the book). This is all to say that even though my intent was to create a stand-alone project, I find myself sitting at my computer and writing this blog post to explain it. And I am not alone here—even in the most multimediated of journals—Kairos, The Scholar Electric, Harlot of the Arts—text reigns. The videos, the comic books, the interactive interfaces are most often supplements to a word-made message.

But that’s the ‘bad’ part. And it certainly isn’t all bad. In the course of creating the comic book, I was also in the midst of implementing my video composition unit. Though I have yet to see my students’ final compositions or to read their reflections about the unit, the prep work leading up to the project helped to re-focus my thinking about the reason we bring all of this ‘stuff’ into our classrooms. And, it helped to remind me about things I knew about writing, but that I had never adequately expressed to my students before. For example, videos show us how to make layering (usually of different modes) evocative, meaningful. But text can do this too—when a controlling metaphor stretches over an essay, or when tone and word choice work against a message, creating irony and understatement. Layering is easy to see in video and multimodal compositions. Learn to manipulate those layers in text, and next time your friend finds you hunched before your computer, and asks what you’re writing, you can answer with a superior sniff, ‘Writing, bah! I’m composing.’

I included screen shots of Garret, Landrum-Geyer, and Palmeri’s “Re-inventing Invention” and of Sorapure’s “Between Modes: Assessing Student New Media Compositions” in my comic book. I would recommend these pieces to anyone planning a new media composition unit with their students.

Read Sorapure’s piece when you start having those oh my gosh I have no idea how to grade or think about new media projects! thoughts. She’ll bolster your courage. Sorapure argues (and I’ve come to agree) that composition instructors are uniquely equipped to evaluate new media work. We know how to study the relationships between ideas, words, images, in writing—so, when we are handed a new media project, she encourages you to focus on ‘composing,’ the bringing together of modes. We can ask students about their composing choices—even if we can’t evaluate their film-making prowess, their digital editing skills. Sorapure suggests using rhetorical tropes that describe relationships between two or more things as a starting place for talking about new media composing options with students. But as I mentioned in the comic, it is a slippery slope between developing a shared language with which you and your students can discuss new media composition and using so many terms that the students lose sight of the relationships which are central to composing. (Sorapure suggests just two: metaphor and metonymy.)

I also relied on Garret et. al’s piece—I used this text with my students to help them think about ‘juxtaposition’ as a concept and as a tool. We spent a day thinking about juxtaposing as a method of ‘inventing’ (as Garret et. al do), but then we continued to work with the term as the students were making choices about combining materials in the drafting state of composition. We asked: How can I create meaning without written or typed words, but rather by purposefully juxtaposing image with sound, video with still image, etc. Next time I teach this assignment—and I think that I will…–I will introduce this concept much earlier in the term, when there is still lots of writing left to be done. Because writing is all about purposeful juxtaposition—but it’s a heck-of-a lot easier to see how juxtaposition works in bright, flashy, multimedia. In fact, if this project wasn’t so time consuming (I needed 5 weeks to pull it off), I might make it the first or second thing my students did in the semester…In the current iteration of my syllabus, the video composition unit felt a little bit like a retrofit. All things I will continue to think about.

Have I answered my questions? Kind of. I know better why my colleagues advocate for the inclusion of new media composing projects in the classroom. There is a great deal of overlap in process, technique, and even products, of all sorts of composition modes. And now I can have that discussion with my students—I know that, ultimately, the answers lie with them.