Chapter 3: Looking for Transfer through Multiliteracies

3.3 Developing Rhetorical Literacies

Rhetorical literacy is the last element of Selber's framework, and he says a rhetorically literate student "will recognize the persuasive dimensions of human-computer interfaces and the deliberative and reflective aspects of interface design, all of which is not a purely technical endeavor but a form of social action” (140). This definition includes four parameters: persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action, which Selber argues students should work toward understanding and practicing. Because all the first-year courses in this study provided an emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion and many instructors used written reflection and other types of reflection regularly to support students in working toward learning outcomes, many examples of students developing these kinds of rhetorical literacies became observable in the data I collected. In fact, students spoke about their rhetorical learning related to all four of Selber's parameters.

Persuasion: Spotlight on Samuel

Related to persuasion, students talked during the interviews about several rhetorical concepts that had been emphasized through their curricula or instructors. Major categories that arose as I coded interview data for rhetoric and persuasion included audience (78 instances across the data set); purpose (52 instances); how audio or music reached an audience and/or became part of the message (36 instances); the rhetorical appeals of pathos (26 instances), logos (8 instances), and ethos (5 instances); and other compositional techniques covered in class such as metaphor, juxtaposition, and completion (22 instances).

In this video, Samuel articulates his understanding of the persuasive appeals of logos, pathos, ethos, and kairos, his understanding of how a consideration of audience affects his choices as an author, and his thoughts on whether and how this knowledge might transfer across media and to other compositional contexts.

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Samuel discusses the development of his rhetorical literacies related to persuasion.

The song used in this video is by airtone, Creative Commons license BY NC.

Descriptive Transcript

[Upbeat background music plays.]White text appears on a black screen reading "A rhetorically literate student... 'understands that persuasion permeates interface design contexts in both implict and explicit ways' (Selber 147)".
Crystal: All right, so rhetoric is a big theme in all the writing classes here at OU. What would you say you learned about rhetoric through this assignment so far?Crystal and Samuel are sitting in a computer lab style classroom. They are facing each other with Crystal on the left and Samuel on the right. Crystal has a set of papers and a pen for notetaking.
Samuel: The rhetorical principles are used in, you know, every major. It's not something you can just break away from. They're there. They're very useful, you know, when you're talking to a certain audience.The angle of the interview switches to show only Samuel as he responds to Crystal, who is off screen.
[Upbeat music with trumpets and a driving beat begins to play.]A clip from Samuel's video begins to play. On the top left corner, text reads "From Samuel's video..." A screen similar to a film roll is shown with the title "Business Management, Samuel Mojica". It then cuts to a blue screen that reads "Business Management". Next is a screen similar to the first that reads "What do Business Managers do?" which is later replaced by "Business Managers are responsible for overseeing and supervising a company's activities".
Crystal: Do you think there's other times when you could use those rhetorical principles beyond this assignment?Crystal and Samuel are shown again sitting in a computer lab style classroom. Crystal has a set of papers and a pen for notetaking.
Samuel: Yeah. Say I do continue with business management. You know, if I'm writing an email to a friend or to a worker I'm going to talk to them in a different tone and I'm going to use different words. When talking to the worker, I'm going to use more educated language, I guess, more business.The angle of the interview switches again to show only Samuel as he responds to Crystal, who is off screen.
Samuel: Well, I think the rhetorical principles will stay with me throughout my college writing and my career writing, whatever it is I want to do. Give me a better way to use language effectively than what I'm doing. Ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos also. Know when to use it. In my writing also. Later on for 160 or any other writing I have to do in college. I may start off by using the wrong language, to when I realize, oh it's a different audience. I got to change this.Samuel is shown in an office, sitting at a table talking to Crystal, who is off screen. This interview takes place at a different point in Samuel's First-Year Writing experience.
[Upbeat background music plays.]

Selber categorizes the elements Samuel mentions, such as appeals and authorial attention to audience and purpose, as elements of classical persuasion, but he also discusses how computer interfaces have unintentional effects and serve as implicit forms of persuasion. Thus symbolist (user-focused) and institutional forms of persuasion are also important to pay attention to as we seek to support students in developing rhetorical literacies (Selber 148-9). These forms of implicit persuasion were less common across the data set, though some students did reflect on audiences and how they might receive the content. One takeaway is that pedagogical approaches to digital rhetoric could extend beyond classical rhetoric more purposefully with an instructional focus on symbolist or institutional persuasion in digital spaces.

Deliberation: Spotlight on Vivian

To discuss deliberation, Selber draws from design theorists Rittel and Webber's concept of wicked problems—problems that are intractable, require social judgments, and have imperfect resolutions, not single solutions, just like most writing and interface design problems (Selber 153-4). Such problems require writers and designers who deliberate, interpret, reinterpret, formulate multiple responses, and use resolutions to reconstitute and better understand the problem itself.

Vivian's narrative about composing her video on stereotypes about only children is demonstrative of how difficult cultivating a deliberative attitude toward digital composition can be.

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Vivian discusses the development of her rhetorical literacies related to deliberation.

Descriptive Transcript

[Soft piano music plays in the background.]
Angie: Yeah?
Vivian: I just have a question about it. [Yeah.] So is synecdoche, like he said, is that really a synecdoche? Or does it have to be like different, like hands...
Vivian is shown in class, raising her hand, and asking her instructor a question. The words "Meet Vivian..." appear on the screen next to her.
Vivian: My name is Vivian. I'm a freshman, and I'm in LSA, undecided, hopefully like business.
Crystal: Tell me why you're taking English 125 right now.
Vivian: Because I have to, to get my, to get an LSA degree.
Crystal: Uh-huh. So how would you describe yourself right now as a writer and your writing abilities?
Vivian: Well, I can write pretty well, but it takes a lot of effort I guess. I can't just like, I have to write a draft and then I have to edit it, like a lot. It's like, it takes a lot of work. Like my organization in the paper is not really good, like in the beginning. And then, I have to, all my thoughts come onto the paper but it's not coher--like it's, you know... They're good ideas, but they're not in order. So then I have to rearrange them.
Crystal: So what aspects of your writing right now are you satisfied with? --do you think you're good at?
Vivian: Well, in the end, it comes out a good product. So I don't really, I don't know what happens in the process.
Crystal: How can you tell that it's a good product in the end?
Vivian: I don't know. I just read it. It sounds nice. Uh...
Vivian is shown in an office sitting in front of a white board, talking to Crystal, who is off screen. The words "Meet Vivian..." remain on the screen. Later, that disappears and is replaced by "We first talked at the start of her writing course."
Crystal: In her first-year writing course, Vivian wrote four essays and composed one video, and all of her papers and her video went through a lot of revision.Vivian is shown sitting in class at a round table with several other classmates. She is working on her laptop with her earbuds in, very focused on her project.
[Music and speech from Vivian’s video plays softly in the background.]
Vivian: Oh, so my video was about only children. Like the stereotype of only children and them being bossy and selfish and rude. And how it's not true. And then at first it was going to be satirical. And my whole video was satirical.
Vivian is shown again in an office sitting in front of a white board, talking to Crystal, who is off screen. She is wearing different clothes, and this interview takes place later in her writing course experience.
Vivian: I was like, it's going to be funny. It'll be good, and it'll prove my point without me having really to say anything because it's so outrageous. But it was really hard to get that point across. And the music and stuff in the background. I didn't really know what kind of satirical music to pick, so...A clip from Vivian's video is shown. In the top left corner, text reads "from Vivian's video..." The first screen is orange and reads "Is this what you think of when you hear 'only child'?" The next clip is of a girl dressed in a cheetah print dress with a feather boa and sunglasses with the words "spoiled brat?" across the middle. Next is a clip of a girl hugging a teddy bear close with the word "selfish?" across the middle. Next is a girl with pigtails and a backpack awkwardly screaming with the words "socially awkward?" across the bottom. Next is a clip of a boy sitting in a corner and crying with text of the bottom reading "lonely?" Then, green text on an orange screen reads "stereotypes aren't always true."
Crystal: Part of revising for Vivian was workshopping her draft with her classmates and with her instructor. Watch and listen here as she interacts with others about her work.
Vivian in class: Do you think in the beginning, you get that it's supposed to be satirical, or no?
Marlee: Yeah.
Vivian: Ok.
Marlee: Yeah, I do. And it's funny, which is good.
Classmate: There are a lot of songs that just don't fit for what you're doing. But you could put one of them in to make the music satirical at the same time. I don't know if we get that. Just songs that are completely, I don't know, like, as long as you know it's satirical. But what would I, I don't know, other than like a satirical thing, what other kind of music would I put? It's a satirical video.
Angie: I think it needs just a little more clarity for me that it's satirical.
Vivian: Ok, If I spell it out that it's satirical, it's not satirical anymore. And it's just like, dumb. Do you know what I mean?
Angie: Yeah, but maybe I just, I just think it needs a little more of what they are, or something.
Vivian: I don't, I just, I guess I don't understand what you mean. Like other than the variety, but how do I make that satirical?
Vivian is shown again in class, sitting at a round table, talking to Marlee, her classmate, and the others at the table. Her instructor Angie also sits down and talks to Vivian about her video. Captions for what each person is saying in the classroom appear on the bottom on the screen.
Vivian: [sighs] I changed my video around a lot of times, many times and then it eventually became like this--and then it became into just a stereotype video about... Then I was like, this is kind of good, but then at the end, I had no idea how to tie it back together. Then I just decided I was going to do it just on only children, because that was the point of my video in the first place. But then not make it satirical. So then I just changed it into a serious video.Vivian is shown again in the office, talking to Crystal, who is off screen.
Vivian's video: I think being an only child made me more creative, more so than I would have been if I had siblings, because when I wasn't outside playing with my friends, and I would be home hanging out by myself, and so I'd have to come up with new ways to, you know, stay entertained. My name is Vivian Hu, and I'm an only child.A clip from Vivian's video is shown. In the top left corner, text reads "from Vivian's video..." Vivian is shown sitting and talking to the camera in her dorm room. The words "How has being an only child benefited you?" appear. Then, a clip of Vivian standing up is shown.
Crystal: So, what do you think you learned about revision through that whole process?
Vivian: I don't--that it takes a long time.
Crystal: I mean, do you not feel like you learned anything? It was just this horrible revision thing you had to go through?
Vivian: No, it wasn't horrible. I don't know. I don't know if I like learned anything that I can think of, but I feel like I probably learned something from the process. I don't, but yeah, I don't really know.
Vivian is shown again in the office, talking to Crystal, who is off screen.
[Soft contemplative background music plays and fades away.]
Crystal: Vivian did learn to better organize her compositions through the course, and she was making important connections about composition across media. Through prompting in the interviews, she was just beginning to articulate the specifics of that learning, and what it might mean for her as a writer when the course came to a close. Key for Vivian's learning was discussion, collaboration, and articulation.
Vivian is shown again sitting in class at a round table with several other classmates. She is working on her laptop and talking to her peers, discussing their projects.
Crystal: What if Vivian had been asked to reflect more? What if she had a more specific vocabulary to talk about her writing and her compositions? What if she had more time?An over the shoulder view of Vivian sitting alone at a table, working on her laptop is shown. She is focused on working on her project.

As I imply at the end of the video, Vivian wasn't fully meta-aware of all the deliberation she took part in as she composed and revised her video. She composed, revised, reinterpreted, revised again several times, and continued to seek feedback from peers and her instructor, improving her product as she went. As I suggest, perhaps she needed more time to develop specific vocabulary and to reflect in order to fully understand these activities and their value. For Vivian, this first experience with deliberation might establish a foundation and potentially a pattern for future deliberation across media.

Reflection: Spotlight on Logan

Selber's reflection is a close cousin to deliberation, in which students “become researchers of their own activities, in order to improve performance” (156). Such an emphasis on reflection is a fairly common pedagogical practice in our field, and reflection has been linked to students' ability or willingness to transfer knowledge (see The Council of Writing Program Administrators "Framework"; Allan and Driscoll, Yancey et al.).

All the students in this study reflected on their work and processes through instructional activities such as in-class writing prompts, reflection essays, peer workshops, and one-on-one or small-group conferencing with the instructor. Logan's experiences are particularly notable within the data set, as the assigned reflection tasks and the video composition process itself seemed to be especially meaningful for her, causing her to reflect even more on her own time and to make changes to improve her compositional process based on what she concluded. I've written extensively about Logan's compositional and reflective experiences elsewhere (VanKooten "The Video"), but I'll add to my previous analyses here using the lens of rhetorical literacy. Because Logan requested to participate in the study anonymously, I present her interview material through prose.

Logan's reflective process through video shifted into high gear when she assembled a rough draft of her video on romantic relationships for the in-class workshop day. As she sat in the workshop and listened to others praise her draft, she felt that they were wrong and that the purpose of her video wasn't yet clear. She left the workshop knowing she had to revise, but she didn't know how to use her unclear first draft or where to go with her topic. As part of her classwork, she had already set some goals for her video, but they weren't helping her figure out what to do next to revise.

A few days later, Logan met with her instructor and several other students for a small-group conference. During this conference, Logan's instructor, Kelly, suggested that Logan rework her video to highlight different perspectives on relationships, which made Logan think of the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which she had read over the summer. Thinking about these ideas together made something click for Logan, as she described:

So after she [Kelly] said the perspectives and I thought about the book, everything fell into place. From then, I was like, "Okay, now I can do my goals." [....T]he goals of actually figuring out what I wanted my video to portray and everything, that came right after, literally right after the meeting. Right after the meeting, I went back to my room, like, "Okay, now I know what I need to do, and this is how I need to do it."

Thus Logan began an in-depth revision process, revising interview questions and reshooting interview footage to include in her second draft. It is notable that the reflective supports built into the classroom structure—goal setting, getting feedback, and conferencing—helped Logan to develop her reflective-rhetorical literacy.

Logan further described how the video composition process itself was a catalyst for reflection for her. As she explained it, "The video made me reflect more. Maybe it’s because I’m more of a visual person. [...] All throughout the time I was doing the video, I’m thinking about my writing." Thus as Logan revised her video, she thought about whether and how she might revise other types of compositions such as written papers:

With my video where I had to start over, that happens a lot with my papers. Where I write something, and after I read it I realize I’m not going where I want to go. Or I realize I’m not being as detailed, or I’m not being as—I’m not hitting the key points that I wanted to hit. And I think one of the things that doing the video made me realize is that when I write papers, I need to have goals. Because if I don’t, I never get to the point of the paper. Because I usually see a prompt and I just write, and I hope I hit them. Whereas with this, I had no choice. I had to write goals, and yeah, it helped.

Because Logan was required to set goals and reflect for the video assignment and she found these activities helpful, she began to understand that a similar process might be useful in other compositional contexts. She even looked through old papers from high school and her summer writing class after her conference, realizing, "This is my problem: I just go off in my head, and I just write. And whatever comes out is what I turn in. And I also don’t double-check papers." In her final interview, Logan told me she had even written out goals for her end-of-class reflection essay in first-year writing and for a longer essay she had written for another course, applying her newly developed rhetorical literacy of reflection in tangible ways.

Often when I talk with instructors about video composition in their writing courses, we end up talking about the videos themselves: "These videos aren't very good!" teachers say, or "How do I assess multimodal content that I'm not an expert in creating?" Of course the quality and content of the videos themselves is important and is one consideration of our assessment and pedagogy; however, I've come to see that much important student learning through video composition occurs along the way that may or may not be evident in the final product. And this is something Logan got after her experiences with video in first-year writing. She reminded me, "It’s all about your path to do the video and the path to do the paper. It’s not the actual video and the paper themselves."

Social Action: Spotlight on Crystal

Rhetorical literacy as social action, for Selber, happens when computer interface designers take explicit activist stances toward injustices in the world, but it also occurs through mundane tasks and everyday activities that might shape digital social realities and environments for the better (Selber 164-5). The social activism of the students in this study through video is most evident for me when looking through the topics and purposes students chose for their video compositions. Many students had an open topic assignment for the video project, but others had topic restrictions. Julie's students, for example, were tasked with composing videos that fit within a larger primary research project and presentation about on-campus student services; Lauren's students composed one-minute introduction videos for a career investigation project and presentation.

Within the three classrooms that assigned open-topic videos, students I interviewed chose the following topics: gun control (Crystal), saving the arts in schools (Lauren), approaches to relationships (Logan), cheerleading as a sport (Madison), the benefits of an off-campus camp study program (Marlee), small versus large class sizes in college (Sabrina), the benefits of sleepaway camp (Shannon), the summer bridge program (Travon), and stereotypes about only children (Vivian). Composing about many of these topics could be considered a form of social action, even if the only audiences for the work were inside the classroom.

One of the most overtly political topics was Crystal's choice of gun control as her video topic. Not only was this a hot-button political issue at the time when Crystal was taking first-year writing in 2016, but Crystal was passionate about directing her message toward classmates and others that might hold an opposite view, with hopes of "helping others and educating others"—making the world better and preserving justice, in her view. In other words, Crystal's act of composition for this assignment was one of social action through digital video. Specifically, in both her video and her research paper, which built on each other, she argued that firearms should not be completely banned in America, but the focus should be on educating citizens for proper use. The video below gives a glimpse into Crystal's process as she used the video assignment to develop her rhetorical literacy in the area of social action.

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Crystal discusses the development of her rhetorical literacies related to social action.

The song used in this video is by airtone, Creative Commons license BY NC.

Descriptive Transcript

[Upbeat background music plays.]White text appears on a black screen, reading "A rhetorically literate student... sees interface design as a form of social versus technical action (Selber 147)."
Crystal VanKooten: Tell me about your video. What are you doing for it? What's your topic?
Crystal (student): Gun control.
Crystal VanKooten: Oh, gun control.
Crystal (student): Yes.
Crystal VanKooten and Crystal are shown in an office sitting across from each other at a table. Crystal VanKooten to the right, Crystal to the left. Crystal VanKooten takes notes as she talks.
Crystal (student): I want people to know that, yes, I'm a pro, I'm a pro-gun advocate. That needs to be known. But they also need to know that I understand why you were against firearms.The angle of the interview switches to only show Crystal as she talks to Crystal VanKooten, who is off camera.
[Intense orchestral music plays in the background of Crystal's video.]A clip of Crystal's video is shown. The words "From Crystal's video..." appear on the top left of the screen. The first clip in the video is a black screen with white text reading "Gun Control: Should We Ban Guns Outright?" The next screen is white with black text reading "By: Crystal Sondey". The next clip is of Crystal looking off into the distance and then turning to look at the camera. In the left corner of the screen, text reads "Being a Pro Gun Individual, it is my Right to own a firearm." The next screen is gray with the word "BUT..." in the center in blue. The video cuts back to the clip of Crystal looking into the camera, the text on the left now reading "It is also my responsibilty to educate others about firearms."
Crystal (student): So it's education, it's education. I keep coming back to that.
Crystal VanKooten: You were talking about writing about what you were passionate about before, and you're definitely passionate about this, I can tell.
Crystal (student): I am passionate about this. That's why I like writing about it.
Crystal VanKooten: That's good.
Crystal is shown again sitting at the table in the office talking to Crystal VanKooten, who is off screen.
Crystal (student): The final paper is the tie-all to everything. Each little assignment built up to the final paper. Then I ended up doing the proposal, the bibliography, the video. And then the final paper kind of incorporated every little kind of detail that I mentioned.
Crystal VanKooten: Why was writing that paper, why did it matter to you so much? Because the topic is so close to you, or...?
Crystal (student): Because the topic is so close to me, and I believe in helping others and educating others. The paper itself is important to me because it's pushing the education of firearms. Firearms are always changing. It's one of those things where laws and restrictions and guidelines are always changing. You always have to be educated on a firearm, all the time. So it's important to me that we push the education platform, and that's why the paper is so important. Because it's about pushing the education platform. The paper kind of came out as rough magic.
Crystal VanKooten: What does that mean?
Crystal (student): Like it's magical, but it's not like polished magic where I'm gonna submit it in anything yet.
A clip of Crystal (student) in the same office at the same table but in different clothes is shown. This interview is later on in her first-year writing experience.
[Background music from beginning continues.]White text appears on a black screen reading "A rhetorically literate student... 'sees interface design as a form of social versus technical action' (Selber 147)."

Because Crystal was able to select a topic that mattered to her and that she was interested in, her investment in the project was high, and she was proud of and happy with the results of her work across the semester, a process that included the video and culminated in the research paper, which she described as "rough magic" in the end. While this data does not speak directly to whether or how Crystal's rhetorical literacy as social action might transfer into other spaces beyond first-year writing, it's clear that her social actions through composition built on one another as the semester progressed and she moved from the research stage to the video to the final paper.

Looking for Transfer through Multiliteracies

Overall, this chapter makes clear that Selber's multiliteracies framework offers one entry point into better understanding the types of knowledge students might transfer across media. The development of functional literacies related to video composition set a foundation for students to compose future videos, papers, and projects with problem-solving tools and strategies at the ready, and these literacies served as a stepping-stone toward the development of rhetorical literacies. Many students joined Samuel in lauding the persuasive appeals for use beyond first-year writing in other courses and in the work world, and reflecting on processes was fruitful for them. Students were able to put these literacies to work as social action in their classrooms as they composed about topics that mattered to them and directed their messages toward audiences that they cared about. Students also revealed evidence of developing a critical multimodal literacy based in video production in which they learned to recognize, analyze, question, and consider applying multimodal elements of their own work. I share more glimpses into the development of this kind of critical multimodal literacy in the next chapter.