Visual Rhetoric in First-Year Composition

Even in the short time since I wrote this paper in spring 2013, there have been changes in multimodal pedagogy that I would want to be reflected. Most important would be to update the information about the WPA Outcomes Statement to reflect the way multimodal and digital writing has been resituated in the statement.

A gap I would like to fill would be the lack of a literature review at the beginning of the paper. In this literature review I would outline the theoretical rationale for teaching multimodal literacy, beginning with John Trimbur’s foundational observation that “visual communication constitutes part of the available means of persuasion” (Welch 256). Saussere’s concepts of semiotics would be key, as well as Bakhtin’s ideas of heteroglossia and language as dialogue. As Craig Stroupe points out, multimodal texts are the epitome of heteroglossia: “Words don’t simply talk to words, but to images, links, horizontal lines—to every feature of the iconographic page” (618). I would also draw on James Berlin’s practice of using multimodal texts to promote critical literacy in his social epistemic rhetoric (121). This pedagogical use would seek to provide students with the critical tools to evaluate a medium that is often consumed without analysis. Ann Marie Seward Barry (1997) contends that “when we receive multiple, fast, intense, and engrossing messages in our media environment, we suspend analysis and enter a state very like daydreaming: ‘we become emotionally but not logically involved in the medium, and images stream into our psyche, accepted without critical analysis’” (Duffelmeyer172-73)—much the same hypnotic effect that Gorgias attributes to language. Marshall Alcorn’s suggestion that some discourses incite more interest and consequently identification could also provide theoretical justification for teaching visual rhetoric: “Some examples of discourse are libidinal for us; they elicit our strong response, attention, and interest. Other examples of discourse are inert representations that we handle like packages” (26). Presumably multimodal texts are examples of the first for many of our students.

Finally, I refer to Marc Prensky’s idea that today’s students are “digital natives,” and so, according to some, these students are not in need of instruction in visual rhetoric. Although I do offer a rebuttal to this argument, I would add to it two ideas garnered from James Gee’s concepts of primary and secondary Discourses. The first hinges on Gee’s distinction between Discourse acquisition and Discourse learning. Even if multimodal literacy is an acquired primary Discourse (or more accurately a well-acquired secondary Discourse), there are benefits for students in learning about this literacy practice. By analyzing (learning about) this acquired Discourse, students will gain conscious knowledge, called “meta-knowledge,” of visual rhetoric. This meta-knowledge allows learners to compare, critique, and change Discourses (167-75). The second idea is Gee’s assertion that when the primary (home and community) Discourses of students conflict with school Discourses, the student must not be the only one to change: “It is also that schools need to adapt to [the student’s] Discourses” (184). This could take the form of teachers utilizing and valuing visual texts in educational settings with “digital natives” rather than insisting that students give up this Discourse in order to fit in to the university.

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