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.”
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.