Picture This: Infographics in English Class, Part Four

Part Four: Visualizing the Writing Process
This post is the fourth in a series about our class project in “Teaching Composition.” Read part one, part two, and part three.

In addition to learning about theories of rhetoric and writing, the future English teachers in this fall’s “Teaching Composition” course needed to think about how to apply those concepts when they enter the classroom. In the final post about the students’ infographic projects, I’ll share a classroom tool created by Caitlin Porter and Lindsey Andrews, which guides students through the writing process. I also hope to explain how the students theorized writing as a process while creating their infographics.

In previous posts, I claimed that this assignment provides practical, marketable skills for students in the course. And while such skills are valuable, they do not exist in a vacuum. At a liberal arts institution like the University of St. Francis, it is just as important for students to understand the theory behind why we might wish to communicate in an infographic format as it is to be able to execute a successful infographic–maybe moreso. In “Teaching Composition,” theory and application worked hand in hand: we read and discussed the New London Group’s theory of multiliteracy–which argues that in an increasingly digital, connected, and diverse world, we are not literate until we can communicate in visual, spatial, oral, and other modes that complement writing–and we practiced creating multimodal texts by designing infographics for real, diverse audiences.

In a recent Hybrid Pedagogy article, Dr. Ashley Hinck, a professor of Digital Media and Communication Arts at Xavier University, points out the limitations of digital platforms like Canva, Wix, and Giphy that allow users to make digital media by dragging and dropping into templates. She warns that the drag-and-drop approach to digital making can actually limit our creativity by making decisions about the design of a product for us. This is troubling, Hinck argues, because it replicates more traditional models of education in which students follow prescribed steps to get the “right” answer without really thinking for themselves. I’ve been thinking about this article quite often since I read it almost a year ago. On the one hand, I take Dr. Hinck’s point. On the other hand, if I want to incorporate digital making into English classes, I need to use templates. If we did not use tools like Canva and Piktochart for this project, we would all still be working on it, because we would all still be learning to code. And that wasn’t the point of “Teaching Composition.”

In their infographic, Caitlin and Lindsey emphasize the importance of peer review in the writing process.

An important point of the course, however, was for students to develop their own critical approaches to digital writing and the role of digital media in shaping how students learn to write today. Along with numerous conversations about how, for example, the prevalence of texting is impacting students’ attention span and writing style, or the difference between freewriting in a notebook and on a laptop, we also worked through the affordances and limitations of digital platforms for writing and other forms of multimodal communication. While workshopping the infographics in class, students pointed out the things they couldn’t do in a platform like Canva, and we brainstormed to find a work-around solution. And when Caitlin and Lindsey encountered too many limitations in the first tool they tried, they started over with another. In other words, the students arrived organically at the point made by Dr. Hinck which, in turn, gave us an opportunity to talk through the affordances of digital media platforms. While one solution to the problem of templates might be to reject them altogether, another is to think creatively about how to achieve the desired rhetorical effect within the limitations we are given. This dilemma starts to sound a lot like the writing process itself.

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Picture This: Infographics in English Class, Part Three

Part Three: Teaching the Teachers
This post is the third in a series about our class infographic project in “Teaching Composition.” Read part one and part two.

When I designed an infographic assignment for students in my “Teaching Composition” class last semester, I hoped it would carry over into their careers. A number of the students are majoring in Education with an English Language Arts concentration and planning to be teachers. Although I have taught a smidgen of high school English, my training and experience have been almost entirely focused on the college classroom. Working with the future teachers in our class would, as the cliche goes, allow me to learn as much from my students as they learned from me. One thing we quickly noticed was the relative gap in information about writing pedagogy for middle- and high-school students. So much of the research in composition studies emerges from and addresses the college classroom. So we took up the task of adapting and translating research on the writing process for younger students–freewriting is great at any age, but meticulous attention to style can stifle young writers. One thing that is especially useful for writers at any level? The notion that writing is a process, not a product.

This idea can totally reorient students’ relationship to writing. Rather than see an essay as a single-step product in which they pour all their ideas, in perfect order, onto the page, students can give themselves the time and space to develop ideas through brainstorming, drafting, and revising. The process of writing is one of “discovery through language,” and the writing classroom can become a space where teachers and students can share in “the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, of searching for the one true word.”1 Instead of performing smartness for an all-knowing teacher who decides, with the flick of her red pen, whether a student’s writing is good and correct or bad and wrong, students can work through their ideas, develop deeper thinking about their topic, and express what they believe to their readers.

In their infographic, Carolyn Lekousis and Hannah Karkos explain that writing is a process.

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Picture This: Infographics in English Class, Part Two

Part Two: Writing is a Beast

This is the second part in a four-part series on infographics created by students in English 318: “Teaching Composition.” Read part one

When we teach students to write, is it best to focus on rules, or on personal expression? On the one hand, if we focus on the rules and conventions of writing in English, we equip students to use and manipulate those conventions, to articulate their own ideas in familiar forms. On the other hand, a focus on rules can shake students’ confidence in their writing and stifle their voices. If students write in their own voices, unhampered by the need to be “correct,” they can enjoy writing and develop a natural ear for language. But if they don’t learn the rules, they won’t know how to punctuate sentences or spell words! Sure, their writing might be an expression of their feelings, but it won’t be comprehensible to their readers! On the other hand…

The debate between rules and expression has a long history in the field of Composition Studies, the area of English devoted to the study of how writing is learned and taught. One of our first readings in English 318: “Teaching Composition” explored this debate as it is taking place in high school English instruction, and throughout the semester, we returned to these questions again and again: How do we help students cultivate attention to the complexity of language while also teaching them to produce readable sentences, paragraphs, and essays? How do we teach with an awareness that our taste in writing is subjective, that maybe writing happens somewhere between writer and reader, that we cannot know or control how our audience will respond?

An encyclopedic command of grammar, genre conventions, and citation can only take writers so far in their journey through the dense relationships between writer, text, and reader. Language is slippery like a seal, proliferating like so many rabbits. And if language works in often unpredictable ways, shaping itself to the specific situation in which it is being used, then writers can never really be in command of language. One of the authors on our syllabus, James Seitz, puts it this way: “The story of acquiring more power as a writer is not, as composition often implies, simply that of gaining greater control over language, but also a story of seeing where a lack of control will take you. In other words, much of what happens in the course of writing is vicarious: we don’t know what it is that leads us to where we go.”1 Arguing that writing teachers should embrace the seal-like and rabbit-like qualities of language, Seitz reminds us that metaphors are at the heart of how writing makes meaning.

As Allee Hernandez and David Hensley illustrate here, metaphors can act like wild beasts.

One of our infographic projects focuses on Seitz’s essay, “Composition’s Misunderstanding of Metaphor,” using images and other elements of visual design to show how central metaphors are to how we think and write. The creators of this infographic, Allee Hernandez and David Hensley, took on the daunting task of translating Seitz’s complex argument into infographic form. In doing so, they deepened their engagement with the reading and combined images and text to help other students understand how metaphor is the heart of writing.

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Picture This: Infographics in English Class

Part One: Picturing Research and Planning for Careers

Are great writers born, or made? Scholars who study the writing process tell us that it can be taught and strengthened, even as they acknowledge that writing–truly beautiful writing–is a mysterious phenomenon that manifests in a feel for language, in the ear, in the voice, through what Sondra Perl calls “felt sense.”1 When we think about what writing is, how we learn it, and how we might teach it, we are met with contradictions. In Fall 2018, students in English 318: “Teaching Composition” wrestled with these contradictions by engaging with theories of rhetoric and writing and by creating research projects that will feed into their careers as teachers and writers. Given the digital context in which we write and learn to write, I wanted to ask the students in “Teaching Composition” to create multimodal texts–ones that incorporate images, sound, digital media, or movement in addition to written text. For their first major research project, students in “Teaching Composition” worked in pairs to create infographics about writing.

In the spirit of the project, I gave students the assignment in the form of an infographic. Students worked in pairs and developed their own research topic, which was designed with a specific audience in mind–like other English majors or high school English teachers. I offered possible avenues for research, but ultimately let the groups define their projects. Two groups focused on teaching writing as a process, not a product: one group created their infographic for fellow teachers, and one created their infographic for their future students. Another group translated one of our theoretical readings, about the role of metaphor in the writing process, into an infographic format, with future undergraduate students in mind for their audience. The fourth group–featured in this post–also addressed their peers, creating an infographic that would show undergraduates the many career paths available to English majors. In a series of posts, I will share these infographics along with their creators’ explanation of how–and why–they translated their research into this visual, digital format.

Here is part of our infographic assignment page, which you can view by clicking on the image.

First up, this post features a project created by Eva Bruno and Matt Oyer, who wanted to research career paths for English majors. In addition to its less-tangible benefits–reading and thinking deeply, finding your own voice as a writer–the English major prepares students for a wide variety of careers.

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