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Visuality and Vital Information: Bridging the Gap between the Seen and the Understood

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 A wall is a very big weapon. It’s one of the nastiest things you can hit somebody with. —Banksy, Banging your Head Against a Brick Wall 1

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 5 A Case for Defacing the Wall
As the simultaneously renowned and reviled graffiti artist Banksy so aptly noted in his manifesto Wall and Piece, the act of creating a boundary in a space that might otherwise be perceived as open can count as an act of violence. This premise being established, it is fair to note that it may be clearly impossible to physically strike someone with a stationary object, the metaphorical concerns of “hitting” someone with an arbitrary construction are many. In the case of the composition student, walls constructed in the implementation of group instruction, during one-on-one writing conferences or through the use of self-learning aids can come to pose a grave danger as they are capable of further alienating marginalized students who require further instruction in areas in which instructors and peers have already noted their deficiencies. I find that in my teaching experience, writers who already have a sense of empowerment about the task that lies before them need less from us as instructors. Those who feel disempowered usually require more. Because of this phenomenon, I consequently argue that in order to alienate fewer students who seek direction from us as instructors or through the use of self-directed learning aids available on paper or via the web that we create, a reconsideration of the representation of “text” is requisite. As we instruct our increasingly digitally-literate student population in their learning to manipulate text and interpret text, using multimodal aids in the process of instruction is necessary to bridge the division between the student and potential perceptions of the platonic or monolithic text.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 A Forensic Examination of the Discursive Space
It may seem ironic to consider that the “weapon” Banksy speaks of in his manifesto is often the same space in which he chooses to initiate a critical discourse. He paints on walls, vans, buses and ATM’s—making statements that that evaluate his society and the capitalistic forces that he believes encourage and foster conformity, as shown in the illustrations below.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Click to view Banksy's "Artiste" in a new tab/window. This installation of an artist appearing to render an already existing graffiti painting not only recontextualizes an existing icon, it demonstrates that the process of synthesis vis-a-vis appropriation is a process for discourse in the visual realm. Source: Banksy.co.uk.Figure 1: Click to view Banksy’s “Artiste” in a new tab/window. This installation of an artist appearing to render an already existing graffiti painting not only recontextualizes an existing icon, it demonstrates that the process of synthesis vis-a-vis appropriation is a process for discourse in the visual realm. Source: Banksy.co.uk.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Click to view Banksy's "BB" in a new tab/window. This photograph of a recently-created graffiti art installation uses existing infrastructure, found British flags, and the iconography of a child factory worker to make a larger statement about capitalism in a public space. Source: banksy.co.uk.Figure 2: Click to view Banksy’s “BB” in a new tab/window. This photograph of a recently-created graffiti art installation uses existing infrastructure, found British flags, and the iconography of a child factory worker to make a larger statement about capitalism in a public space. Source: banksy.co.uk.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 8 But to media theorists who take after the work of Marshall McLuhan, this development would come as no surprise. If the “medium” can ever be considered the message, it would have to be in cases like those of the graffiti artist who appropriates a public space for public discourse. This notion carries over into composition pedagogy in one markedly important fashion. Jeff Rice of Wayne State University cites McLuhan’s work as proof that the literacy of students must be liberated from the “bind of print-based literacy assumptions regarding writing” in his chapter on imagery in The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media stating: “What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and literacy and writing as these older forms of perception and judgment are interpenetrated by the new electronic age?” 2 It could very well be stated that these new configurations of mechanisms and literacy are more visually diverse in nature than the process of standard interpretation of black text printed on a white page will allow. But, unfortunately, many of the places we send students for self-directed learning do not seem to have caught up with this need, and many of the other materials we use for instruction fail them in providing anything but a prescriptive experience as well. The Purdue Owl, to give example of an often accessed source, manages to include yellow borders, brown and grey text and blue hyperlinks—but for the most part remains black text on a white background broken down by subject headings and is solely meant to prescribe style, citation guidelines and general writing advice (Fig 3). The much heralded Diana Hacker does better in her work in teaching standard handbook cases of grammar, punctuation and citation, providing students who utilize her handbooks interactive quizzes, many bright colors and text spaces that function as spaces that are not static—but still relies heavily on sample papers and the interpretation of large swaths of text as means of engagement (Fig 4). The inherent problem with these self-directed spaces, and most other pedagogical environments, is that they differ greatly from the conditions under which natural conversations take place, which is why it’s important to consider that the rhetorical considerations (like exigence) when an artist like Banksy, for example, selects the stark space of a wall found in a publicly available, well-traveled area in any major city of his choosing, he creates a discourse from elements that he believes, as a military/political industrial complex work to alienate him. He quite naturally appropriates items in the process of creating a conversation.  The process of synthesis taught within the walls of the writing classroom generally exploits the same processes through classroom discussion and research.  Ideas as “icons” are often appropriated as students begin to recognize existing positions and adopt them in order to produce textual products that recognize where their own positions stand. This process might be simulated and augmented in virtual and electronic pedagogical spaces by creating assignments that have students work with the visual icons that represent of their argument before setting to write structured text.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Purdue Owl ScreenshotFigure 3: This screen capture from the Purdue Owl demonstrates the highly text-favored elements of explaining the nitty-gritty elements of composition.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Diana Hacker Screen CaptureFigure 4: This screen capture from Diana Hacker’s Bedford St. Martin’s material is far more interactive, but still lacks much in the realm of visual engagement in order to help the student fully conceptualize the writing instruction.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 It is in conversation, and in the traditional processes of synthesis, when the student comes to realize that “her mark” within the stream of discourse in which she is trying to gain a foothold is just as important or as valid as a claim made by anyone else, though perhaps not quite as authoritative—the exigence for conducting research that will support her claims, learning to formulate those claims clearly and learning to organize those claims in a coherent fashion emerges. As the student begins to think of her own claims as an appropriation of existing (but of course properly cited and attributed) iconography rife for manipulation and interpretation and less as a mimicry or a short-term loan made merely for the paper’s sake of stronger, more authoritative claims made by an oppressive other, the student’s voice has space to get stronger, a motive to become more engaged in her work is found, and the interest in developing her paper can be followed to its most fruitful end and through an alternative sense of writer/instructor rhetoric. David L. Wallace notes that the development of alternative rhetorics is crucial in the practice of rhetoric and composition in an article found in the December 2009 issue of College Composition and Communication as he develops the argument that three concepts from queer theory can be used as a basis for defining any alternative rhetoric. 3 He largely cites Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa in his argument, stating that the concepts of intersectionality, copresence and disidentification are used to define the alternative. As Anzaldúa navigates cultural icons found in the Mestiza experience to represent the virgin/whore binary, it may be fair to argue that the same processes work for navigating the black/white text dichotomy or the right/wrong dichotomy on which students often assume they are embody the “wrong” side. 4 The plurality within the framework of established iconography has not been lost on other scholars who have analyzed Anzaldúa’s text. In a study on difference and the non-unitary subject scholar Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano notes:

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 A useful strategy in teaching or reading Borderlands is to locate the reader and the text: the reader vis-à-vis plural centers and [sic] margins and the text, within traditions of theorizing multiply embodied subjectivities by women of color and living in the borderlands by Chicanas and Chicanos. Contextualizing the book in this manner rather than reading it in a vacuum helps avoid the temptation to pedestalize or even fetishize Borderlands as the invention of unique individual. 5

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 In the multimodal composition environment, however, the non-unitary subject doesn’t simply serve as static iconography that embodies passive subjectivities for the student to interpret. The non-unitary subject serves as the student’s bridge into a conversation as the icon is appropriated and successfully remixed the student’s own mode of expression.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 What Transpires at the Intersection of the Wall and Paint
When the student inserts herself into a discourse, the first attempts she makes tend to be clumsy, awkward and strange to herself, and notably to her instructor. The student is generally aware that an expected end result is required for her to make the grade, but she is often not aware of the processes involved in creating the desired outcome. Diane Penrod notes this problem in Composition in Convergence: The Impact of New Media on Writing Assessment. In her chapter on inter-networked writing she notes:

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Furthermore, writing assessment usually depends on students matching—or trying to match—specific conventions in their writing that are defined by a program’s writing faculty or a college or university as being critical to certify one’s literacy. The more proficiently students can match their writing to the desired conventions, the better the score they receive on the exit portfolio or barrier essay. 6

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 However, it is equally crucial to note that Penrod likewise claims the following: if the discipline of writing does not change to be more multimodal, then it will not fully exploit everything the digital space has to offer:

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 If composition is to move further into computer-based writing instruction, the discourse game must change. Rhetorical and linguistic improvisation or innovation—so desirable in networked writing—resists standardization, which puts students highly involved in computer-based writing classes at some risk for strong performance in the usual battery of writing assessment tests that measure traditional generic structures or usage. 7

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 5 This idea might become more further complicated when one considers the case that many contemporary textbooks and aids make based in the case of imagery, as Rice notes that students are often instructed to write about images, but never with images. In many cases it seems it is as Rice purports, that “Students see images, but don’t use them for generating new experiences. Students observe images but are not asked to find correlations between an image-based experience and their own.” 8 If one accepts these notions regarding the many visual binaries in play when it comes to composition instruction as being firmly established precepts, it would follow that semiotic binaries— at least in and of themselves—need not always be perceived by the beholder as purely dichotomous constructions by design or by sheer necessity. Such is the case Anazaldua makes, and the act of Derridian deconstruction and countless poststructuralist and therefore postcolonial theories present. Readily acknowledged multiplicities and dualities abound when the tenuous connection between signifiers and signified elements is revealed as slippery as opposed to static, and the often monstrous construction each pair comes to represent are examined through the lenses of classroom discussion or through dissecting literature. It has long been the tradition of border theorists, as Wallace is so aware, to recognize these multiplicities and tenuous connections within social constructions. Gloria Anzaldúa declares that these constructions are only perceived by the oppressed to be operational in terms of binary in Borderlands/La Frontera by stating, “The work of the mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to sow in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended.” 9 The teacher/student relationship is no less a social construction than any other—one might even note the relationship can often take on the Foucaultian properties of interaction affected by the institutional gaze aptly defined in The Birth of the Clinic when students consider their manuscripts to be an ailing property and the teacher to be an authority standing at the ready to “doctor” it up, or a self-directed learning aid to be a magic-cure panacea with mystical medical properties. That is why it is crucial that the student perceive the pedagogical environment, and the page as a space to continually engage with rather than a practice in producing something that he or she is detached from because those who are perceived to be in authority will be unlikely to value it anyway. For the sake of argument, however, it stands to reason that for the tech-savvy first year composition student, this act of bifurcation creates a boundary that must be navigated to achieve a perception that can include constructions of multiplicity, as the state of dichotomy, or conversely a carefully nurtured state of duality, becomes emphasized through the act of creating or internalizing the division as she relates to an item intended to provide direction. That is not to say that the cases of black text and white paper or background are always the only ones actively presented in the visual dichotomy used in most academic writing in an essential sense, or in most text-based online help, but rather that reliance on the purely textual medium to create help aids for the student can undermine the idea that the student should actively engage with them, even if the aids effectively model what the end-result should be in their portrayal of discursive circumstances. And, at least in the framework of Anazulda’s conception of the “border,” this paradigm not only substantiates the claims scholars like Penrod and Rice make, it solidifies the notion that there is a dire necessity for distinctive and further inclusive discourse that transcends the boundaries of the stark, dichotomous page. It is in only when the composition student successfully navigates the discourse-specific elements of academic conversation is she capable of blurring the line of the institutional dichotomy. As she inserts herself into the conversation, finding her place in the relationship to the ownership of ideas to not be on the disempowered side of the conversation after all, the student becomes able to self-direct a larger portion of her own learning, and ultimately her own writing process. The iconic “sense” of the text and the dynamic “reference” she now has in relation to the text are made one in this empowered discursive space. As the student becomes used to existing in this space, she becomes less and less aware of the monolith and produces work, that at least before the editing and revising process, does not bear the usually strong presence of said student’s perception of the academic/institutional gaze.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Kate Morgan is in her final year of M.A. in English studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. She enjoys examining the rhetorical implications of all manner of electronic discourse, studying pop culture and assisting sudents who feel disenfranchised by the academy in the process of finding their voice. 

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Notes:

  1. 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
  2. Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall. (Banksy,  2001), 16.
  3. Jeff Rice, The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2007), 140.
  4. David Wallace, “Alternative Rhetoric and Morality: Writing from the Margins.” College Composition and Communication 61:2 (2009): 18.
  5. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands: The New Mestiza – La Frontera (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987).
  6. Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, “Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: Cultural Studies, ‘Difference,’ and the Non-Unitary Subject.” Cultural Critique 28 (1994), 8.
  7. Diane Penrod, Composition in Convergence: The Impact of New Media in Writing Assessment. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 2005), 23.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Jeff Rice, The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2007), 140.
  10. Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 102.
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Source: http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/rethinking/morgan-2013/