Code-Switching to Improve Composition in the Liberal Arts

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 10 At least ten years after writing instruction began to open itself up to multimodal composition, there has been substantial movement towards its teaching at many institutions. Yet, at a national conference a few years ago, when a writing program director at a major university learned of my interest in multimedia composition, he asked, “But what can it do that writing cannot—and usually better?” While some like him may continue to believe that web writing does not fit into the long-standing goals of a liberal education, I contend that work in both traditional forms and composition in new media—which the Web enables and encourages—complement one another. Moving between the written word and multimodality—analogous to code-switching between languages or dialects—students will learn how to communicate their ideas more effectively by applying rhetorical concepts in many media. Multimodal writing on the web should be taught as an essential element of a liberal arts curriculum and, furthermore, those faculty familiar with the canons of rhetoric already have the means to offer valuable instruction in this type of composition.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 From ancient times, a liberal arts education has, of course, focused upon rhetoric and should not only maintain, but actually broaden this perspective. As Sister Miriam Joseph explains in The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric (originally published in 1948; reissued in 2002), “Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.” 1 Whatever the medium of expression, those who would communicate need to understand each of these three arts. Given the challenges that writing for the web creates and the exponential increase in potential audience it brings, these elements become even more important to our curriculum. Having an opportunity to write for a potentially substantial audience outside of the classroom often instills student authors with motivation and commitment. And it makes teaching logic still more important: being critiqued by a teacher or a classmate may be disappointing; having such criticism detailed in a public forum—and often viciously, given much Internet behavior—may be devastating. Furthermore, when one moves beyond the written word to a multimodal panoply, the grammar of invented symbols and the syntax of their combinations open up a wealth of possibilities. In multimodality, “the adaptation of language to circumstance,” as Joseph characterizes rhetoric, assumes multiple manifestations: sounds, still pictures and moving images, and interactive features—all contributing in nearly limitless permutations. All these elements may seem too much for instructors to take on, but as both experienced, critical consumers of media and informed rhetoricians, they have a less daunting task than initially feared.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 6 Rhetoric, according to the anonymous author of Rhetorica ad Herennium, has five canons, or principles: “The speaker . . . should possess the faculties of Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery.” 2 Even though these elements stem from ancient Greek oratory traditions, they still have much to offer web writers and multimodal composers, albeit with some contemporary twists. By teaching multimodal writing for the web, we can integrate these canons into contemporary media, showing students how these ancient ideas still function both as analytical tools and generative heuristics. Just as writers (and writing teachers) have adapted these principles from oral to written expression, so can we consider how they function in a multimodal, webbed world. And employing these concepts in varied media offers a lesson in contrastive rhetoric across media, enriching students’ understanding and use of these principles and methods.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 How do these elements of rhetoric transform as media develop—from speech to print to multimodal? The Rhetorica ad Herrenium, previously ascribed to Cicero, offers brief definitions of the canons early in the treatise:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Invention is the devising of matter, true or plausible, that would make the case convincing. Arrangement is the ordering and distribution of the matter, making clear the place to which each thing is to be assigned. Style is the adaptation of suitable words and sentences to the matter devised. Memory is the firm retention in the mind of the matter, words, and arrangement. Delivery is the graceful regulation of voice, countenance, and gesture. 3

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 These canons have, of course, been used to generate much standardized writing and, indeed have been taught, in part, as a means to produce essays for tests. They may be used in this fashion and approached sequentially. But what I am arguing for here is an awareness of how the canons may serve as a means to reconsider our approach to multimodal composition. They may serve many purposes; Walter Ong, for instance, would have us think of the canons’ dominance in historical eras. In his Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, he

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 has distinguished, compared, and contrasted the cultural and value systems linked to oral, literate, and electronic communities. In terms of the classical rhetorical canons, for example, an oral culture fosters and reinforces delivery and memory; the literate culture emphasizes style and arrangement; the electronic culture highlights invention. Thus, in Ong’s view, media systems constrain human interaction, feature only certain rhetorical activities, and reflect, create, and sustain particular kinds of cultural systems. 4

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Ong does illustrate both how useful and pliable the canons have become. However, since the publication of his work in 1982, developments in technology have allowed for other applications of these ancient principles. Rather than examine how a dominant canon constrains an electronic culture or community, I suggest we expand our consideration of which canons electronic culture makes use, taking up each in turn to consider its potential in multimodal composition.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 10 In order to discuss the canons in this manner, I would like to examine a compelling example of what multimodal writing can accomplish. In December of 2012 an extraordinary piece of multimedia journalism appeared on The New York Times website: “Snow Fall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” by John Branch (and a team of sixteen assisting with graphics, design, photography, video, and research). This web publication chronicles an afternoon of extreme skiing by sixteen experienced athletes, three of whom perished in the backcountry of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. The piece provides a skilled narrative feature, yet also includes family snapshots, video interviews with survivors and a meteorologist, 911 recordings, animated maps, and computer graphics that meld to offer a gripping and comprehensive examination of the participants, conditions, routes, and emotions of that fateful day. The first page initially seems laid out like a conventional news story, but it also offers an interview with one skier who found herself buried in the snow, a fly-over map of the terrain, a one-minute video entitled the “Allure of the Backcountry,” a slideshow of lodging and night skiing in the area, and a satellite weather video around the time of the avalanche—all of which may be clicked on or ignored, as the reader prefers. This work won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Award. While acknowledging that few students will have the time, skill, and resources to produce anything quite as complex or detailed, I believe they can certainly gain much by using it as an inspiration and a model.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 3 Often in the writing classroom, invention becomes a method of generating ideas, or leads to a decision regarding what topic students should write upon or how might they approach an assignment. Depending on the genre required and the students’ experience, this prewriting may constitute research, evaluation, or logical analysis, all frequently in service of proving a thesis. However, in multimodal composition, invention—as “the devising of matter . . . that would make the case convincing” 5—involves not only analysis and research, but also a more material sense of construction, partially returning to an earlier, more concrete definition of “devise.” The OED points out that to devise “formerly includ[ed] the notion ‘to construct, frame, fashion’”; but “now express[es] only the mental process of inventing or contriving.” 6 Inventing for “Snow Fall” would include a consideration of what type of journalism would be offered here—a sports feature about extreme skiing, a scientific consideration of avalanches, or a human-interest piece—but, of course with the scope and multimodal nature of the project, it can be all of these. Neither genres nor media face strictures in this new frontier of multimodal journalism. 7 The invention stage would weigh what kinds of representation would make for a sufficiently detailed and emotionally satisfying piece for one’s imagined audience. Authors need also consider how the various media would interact: for example, how do the images contribute to the composition’s purpose or effect? Or do they detract from it? Furthermore, it would entail pondering what tools could be used “to construct, frame, [or] fashion” an object, albeit one utilizing code—borrowed or devised—and the hardware of the producer and the recipient. Deciding what media or genre best suits an argument sharpens an understanding of the process and varied options in the invention phase.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 3 Arrangement, “ordering and distribution of the matter” and “making clear the place to which each thing is to be assigned,” 8 remains that which appears on the screen, still a metaphorical page for most of us. That page, however, transforms to a nexus of multimodal possibilities. Do readers follow the narrative text through all the tabbed sections of “Snow Fall”? Or do they browse the family photos of the avalanche’s victims? Would they skip the meteorological and physical explanations of this deadly phenomenon? What is the effect of montage—how does one image next to another contribute to their power? A polyvalent multiplicity replaces the linear narrative, guided in part by choices in layout and design, but also subject to the whims and decisions of the readers. Encouraging students to regard the ways that an audience may be influenced by arrangement in one medium strengthens the awareness of placement and juxtaposition in other media.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Such transference of knowledge and abilities has long been a hope and tenet of composition instruction, and it seems neurobiology research supports this process in the fractal formation of our brains—with irregular branching, yet similar shapes. 9 Ed Nuhfer suggests that our learning to write

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 has fractal properties by virtue of the fact that it employs and builds fractal neural networks. Once synaptic networks stabilize, they serve as conduits that preferentially direct the flow of subsequent information. Deep learning occurs only when we produce indelible neural structures in the brain. If the owner takes care to develop them, they enable the owner of such a neural network to act through what we can recognize as expert performance. 10

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 3 In other words, continued exposure to the rhetorical canons will implant them in the brain to the point that, with the emphasis I suggest, they will be used readily and across media.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Similar to invention and arrangement, style allows a multimedia rhetor to adapt more than “suitable words and sentences to the matter devised.” 11 Authors and producers supplement, complement, and/or replace the printed word with the graphical, still, and moving image which allows them to consider how all these pieces suit the matter devised; in “Snow Fall,” for instance, having both the meteorologist’s explanation and an animation—the latter illustrating the accumulating layers of snow and ice that lead to the avalanche—unifies two styles of presentation clarifying the mechanics of the slide and the weather conditions that led to it. At other times, the writing in the piece cries out for the more vivid description offered by the sounds and sights of a video. Here Branch describes backcountry powder skiing in words:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Tunnel Creek is, in the vernacular of locals, a “hippie pow run” — breezy and unobstructed, the kind that makes skiers giggle in glee as they descend through a billowing cloud of their own soft powder and emerge at the bottom coated in white frosting.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Despite trends toward extreme skiing (now called freeskiing), with improbable descents over cliffs and down chutes that test the guile of even the fiercest daredevils, the ageless lure of fresh, smooth powder endures. 12

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 3 However, this brief characterization of the run does not have to stand alone, for the accompanying video portrays the experience in almost mystical terms—a “primal” time of “pureness” and “bliss,” and “becom[ing] at one with snow”—with testimonials from participants on that fatal excursion, a new age soundtrack and footage from an extreme skiing highlight reel. With the current popularity of documentaries, students have many styles from which to choose; I have been presented with pieces that make arguments using the authoritative “voice of God” perspective and others who offer the extreme claims and confrontational stance of a documentarian like Michael Moore. Analysis of these types of examples can increase students’ understanding of how each multimodal element deploys its rhetoric, thereby achieving “the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of [a number of] languages to circumstance,” that is, to make a case convincing, not only in and of itself, but also in comparison to, and by use of, other forms of expression. 13

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 6 The next canon, memory, may no longer have the meaning it once did, for memory palaces and other mnemonic devices have waned with the invention of the teleprompter and its subsequent transformation into an app. In our technological age, memory certainly preoccupies us in terms of bytes on a computer disk drive and in cloud-based storage. Perhaps, more significantly, memory may be regarded in terms of what it evokes culturally. In our post-modern, mashup, remix culture, few produced texts—in any form—avoid becoming a bricolage of memories and meanings. Mikhail Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, the polyphonous text, exists on many levels in an audio essay or in a multimedia narrative. Adding a song, using a particular tone of voice, or applying a special effect may all communicate multiple messages simultaneously. As “Snow Fall” only uses music sparingly, let me turn to another source for an example: one of my students submitted a video essay lamenting the dominance of white male film directors. As she offered a montage of the Oscar winners for best directors, The Offspring’s ironic song celebrating a clueless youth trying to be hip, “Pretty Fly for a White Guy,” serves as a soundtrack and reinforces the white male power and privilege that continues to dominate both this industry and this award category. 14 The punk band contributes to the montage with its rhythm and to the piece’s meaning with its implied tongue-in-cheek reminder of who actually controls much of the entertainment business. The student who created this combination invokes the band’s rebellious spirit. Sonic commentary can clearly augment (or play against) the images and reinforce our reaction to, and memory of, a multimodal piece.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 Regarding delivery, the means to persuade expands from the tone of voice and the choice of gestures to the selection of image and audio and the numerous effects one can work with and on them. How one may best convince an audience expands dramatically as our capabilities to make audible and image-based arguments continue to be enhanced by technology. And, as James E. Porter points out, there are a number of topoi to be taken up under the canon of delivery. In “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric, he “presents a theoretical framework for ‘digital delivery’ consisting of five key topics—Body/Identity, Distribution/Circulation, Access/Accessibility, Interaction, and Economics—and shows how each of these topics can function strategically and heuristically to guide digital writing.” 15 Porter urges his readers to “think of these as the common topics (koinoi topoi) of delivery—i.e., categories that operate heuristically and productively across multiple situations to prompt rhetorical decisions regarding production. In short, they help you write.” 16 For instance, what persona will be presented online through written words, images, and pictures? Who might have access to devices to read and see your work? Does the piece follow principles of universal design so that disabled individuals will have access? Within the digital realm, delivery potentially becomes more complex than it ever was for a classical orator.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 3 Multimodal genre and writing on the open web then afford both a more comprehensive and timely education for the twenty-first century, lending themselves to a transfer among these formats and a greater awareness of their use. Since a goal of a liberal arts education is not only to ponder essential questions and foster a free citizenry, but also to offer the means to persuade and communicate, it is quite frankly irresponsible not to teach the contemporary student multiple means of expression—for the presentation of ideas occurs both in written and spoken words, as well as in the fine and performing arts, all of which may cohere in a multimodal piece. All of the rhetorical canons may be applicable in various formats, and—to use the term as Maryanne Wolf does concerning reading in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain—we ought to enable code-switching between them.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 Of course, even without resurrecting the spirits of Aristotle and Cicero, rhetoric (and writing) has a place in teaching forms of new media. Few of us can make a compelling point in an audio essay or create a voice-over for a short film without first generating a script. More important in terms of pedagogy, having students create both written and multimedia texts allows them to contrast the effects of their spoken and printed words and/or images in a variety of situations. They begin to understand various rhetorical elements—such as register, diction, and transitions—in a deeper way when they deploy these techniques in different types of media. Multimodal expression then encourages the use of a variety of abilities and a broader application of rhetorical devices and canons.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 5 Rather than banishing writing or limiting it to one’s course or lamenting the development of multimedia, just as Socrates famously deplored the introduction of writing, let us teach both writing and multimedia in the same courses and on the web. Each has distinct purposes and effects that students will discover and comprehend as they explore their expressive and analytic potential to a broad audience. Maryanne Wolf argues for such a “both/and” approach in her conclusion to Proust and the Squid:

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The analytical, inferential, perspective-taking, reading brain with all its capacity for human consciousness, and the nimble, multifunctional, multimodal, information-integrative capacities of a digital mind-set do not need to inhabit exclusive realms. Many of our children learn to code-switch between two or more oral languages, and we can teach them also to switch between different presentations of written language and different modes of analysis. 17

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1 Consider the two approaches that Wolf offers. Our students need “the analytical, inferential, perspective-taking, reading [and writing] brain” in order to take in, ponder, and respond to thousands of years of thinking, allowing for both the contemplation and the trying out of ideas—essay and assay stemming from the same root. However, without being able to employ “the nimble, multifunctional, multimodal, information-integrative capacities of a digital mind-set,” our students will not thrive in the twenty-first century, for they will not possess the tools and rhetoric to express themselves skillfully using a variety of media. To read (or interpret) and to write (or create) in the forms and genres that both “codes” privilege is essential to a contemporary liberal arts education. The twenty-first century version ought not regard these new forms as a passing fad; it needs to include fostering abilities in multimodal forms of communication. Let us lead—an etymological root of educate—students to such richness and multi-faceted expression.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Acknowledgement: This essay expands on ideas I presented in an Educause Review column in 2009: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/persistence-writing. I also wish to thank the Wednesday Writing Group for their ideas for and support with this piece.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 About the author: Thomas Burkdall (tlburk@oxy.edu) is an Associate Professor in Writing and Rhetoric and the Director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Notes:

  1. 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0
  2. Sister Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric ed. Marguerite McGlinn (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002), 3.
  3. <Cicero>, Ad C. Herennium de ratione dicendi (Rhetorica ad Herennium),trans. Harry Caplan (London: Heinemann, 1954), 7.
  4. Ibid., 7.
  5. James W. Chesebro and Dale A. Bertelsen, Analyzing Media: Communication Technologies as Symbolic and Cognitive Systems (New York: The Guilford Press, 1996), 57.
  6. <Cicero>, Ad C. Herennium, 7.
  7. Oxford English Dictionary, Electronic Edition, s.v. “devise.”
  8. Of course, instructors may want to narrow, rather than open up, the possibilities, especially in the early stages of a web author’s/producer’s development.
  9. <Cicero>, Ad C. Herennium, 7.
  10. David Pincus, Fractal Brains: Fractal Thoughts, The Chaotic Life: Patterns and Randomness in How We Live, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-chaotic-life/200909/fractal-brains-fractal-thoughts.
  11. Ed Nuhfer, “A Fractal Thinker Designs Deep Learning Exercises: Acts of Writing as ‘Gully Washers,’” The National Teaching & Learning Forum 10, no. 3 (2010): 9-10.
  12. <Cicero>, Ad C. Herennium, 7.
  13. John Branch, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek.
  14. Joseph, The Trivium, 3.
  15. Since the Academy Awards began in 1929, four women and two African Americans have been nominated in the best director category. Of these six, only Kathryn Bigelow won the award in 2009.
  16. James Porter, “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric,” Computers and Composition 26, no. 4 (2009): 207. Porter summarizes these categories early in his article: =Body/Identity—concerning online representation of the body, gestures, voice, dress, and image, and questions of identity and performance and online representations of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity=Distribution/Circulation—concerning the technological publishing options for reproducing, distributing, and circulating digital information= Access/Accessibility—concerning questions about audience connectedness to Internet-based information=Interaction—concerning the range and types of engagement (between people, between people and information) encouraged or allowed by digital designs=Economics—concerning copyright, ownership and control of information, fair use, authorship, and the politics of information policy (p. 208)
  17. Ibid., 208.
  18. Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 228-29.
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Source: http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/rethinking/burkdall-2013/