theory

This iteration of English 462 (Technical Writing) is designed to deploy a variety of pedagogical tactics in concert with a digital, multimodal focus toward the specific goal of preparing students for the challenges of a continually evolving communication environment, both professionally and socially.   The course takes teaching and theory cues from composition studies, computers and writing, and visual rhetoric. It asks students to learn, analyze, and wield various modes of communicating and has a particular focus on visual and new media technologies. In many ways, this course attempts to theorize an emerging technical writing landscape that includes text, images (moving and still), audio, and design in various proportions. Importantly, instead of a series of unconnected abstract assignments, students will be required to work with a specific organization in the real world in a practice that has come to be known as service learning.

This essay will begin by outlining the major assignments in this course and the broad trajectory of the student experience during the semester.   Using the pedagogical strategy known variously as service learning, community outreach, client-based…etc, I will explain my own interest and experience in this terrain and give specific citations to provide the academic foundation for this syllabus. I will then give a brief overview of the trend toward multimodality in composition and computers and writing that provides the justification for the multimodal design emphasis of the course. Lastly, I will discuss the theoretical grounding of the course, which arises from new understandings of fragmentary and archive composition and ANT and John Law. This fragmented coherence happens on a number of levels in this course; from the individual media files/clips arranged on a timeline in a single project to the collection of assignments being combined into a meaningful whole that can have a discernible impact on the community.

The course begins with an introduction to technical writing and the rhetorical tradition in which it is situated to give a foundation and a justification for the rest of the course. Special emphasis will be given to the rhetorical situation (supplemented by Bitzer’s seminal essay), Kairos, and visual rhetoric. This leads into the first assignment, which requires the students to produce the documents associated with finding a job. I struggled with the correct mechanism for including this ubiquitous assignment into the service learning part of the course with little success. I kept this assignment basically intact because of the vital importance of students’ development of resume production skills. Unique to this version of the assignment however, is the addition of the third component of a digital remix of either the resume or the cover letter. This will be the first experience in the production of visual communications for some students and provides a useful tool with which to measure the skill level of this particular group of students.

After the employment documents project is finished, we will move quickly into our first practicum. I have chosen this terminology as a way to distinguish the theory from the practice in this course. Essentially workshop days with specific goals (design, video, etc), the idea for the practica section of this course comes from Cynthia Selfe’s DMAC project. By isolating a single mode and a single software application (video and iMovie, for example), students are able to transfer the knowledge from the theory covered in the previous class to the project they are working on. I have outlined two of three practica in some detail in the course website.   The first, the design practicum will come after the remixed resume and before the visual design project. This will be followed by the video practicum, which will come before the affective video promotion project. In order to be responsive to the specific situation visa vie the students (in terms of technical skill/experience and career path), I have chosen to leave the third practica undetermined. Depending on the needs of the class, it might cover still image manipulation, audio, web design, GIFs, etc.

The remainder of the major projects in this course will all be geared toward service learning. The students will be directed early in the semester (if not in an email before the semester begins) to identify an organization with which they are comfortable and keen to assist in some way. They will first be asked to produce a poster for the organization, which will provide the situation for a discussion of visual design principles, genres, and conventions. The class will then shift slightly into a discussion of social media and toward a third project which asks students to develop a memo explaining the details and operation of a new social media application or technological device. The pedagogy behind this assignment is quite similar to the standard memo/report assignments of mainstream technical writing syllabi. The difference lies with the growing connection to the nonprofit for whom the student has just designed a poster. The audience, style, and structures should be at least reasonably clear and I expect the students to fold that information (along with the relationship with the staff and subject of the nonprofit) into a choice of social media that can improve outreach and goal attainment. This gets further folded (or scaffolded) in the next assignment, which asks students to produce a short video for the nonprofit to use as an online promotional tool. This assignment comes out of an emerging generic trend of short online videos perhaps exemplified best by the Kickstarter introduction video.

Following these assignments is the Nonprofit Media Action Project, which, in many ways, is the backbone and driving inspiration behind the entire syllabus. This assignment calls on the student to combine the visual and textual skills they have been practicing in a real world, event based situation. They will be asked to attend an event and collect as much information as possible and then create a public press packet to promote the organization following the event. They will have several choices with regard to the modes engaged, but will need to deploy many of their skills to accomplish a useful press kit.

The final major assignment is a portfolio handed in at the exam time. This provides the possibility for further revision of all the previous projects and more practice in bundling and preparing large, multimodal documents. Addressed to an individual contact at the nonprofit, this portfolio should provide a solid record of their work in the class.

In addition to the standard participation grade, this class explores an alternative model to the weekly writing/blog/short essay assignment that has a widespread hold on many graduate and undergraduate humanities classrooms. I define this concept loosely as the ‘digital commonplace book.’ Taking its cue from ancient rhetorical/heuristic practices, this is a place for ideas to be stored, for combinations and arrangements to emerge spontaneously and unpredictably. In the past (and still today) this takes the form of a small notebook carried to jot down inspiration both original and copied. The digital version could take many forms. This is an aspect of this syllabus that is very exciting, but one that needs more work and experimentation. Now that I have outlined the syllabus, I will move into an explanation of the service learning part of the syllabus. But first, please excuse a short auto-ethnographic aside.

My interest in working with nonprofit organizations has its roots in my childhood where I spent significant time at the nonprofit of which my mother was executive director. Her organization was charged with providing a safe place for women in difficult situations. As I got older and interested in photography, it was a natural progression to take images of the organization’s freshly cut yard, or a successful job applicant coming back with a smile. As I honed my craft, these images improved and began appearing in newsletters and posters. Much later, and after beginning a career as a professional photographer, I had the opportunity to photograph a large nonprofit organization in India which also was responsible for protecting vulnerable populations. It was after an especially successful fundraising exhibition of these photographs in New Delhi that an idea emerged to provide media to small nonprofit organizations…as a nonprofit myself. The financials of this plan were tenuous and I found myself furthering my craft (theory AND practice now) in a masters program in media arts. While scholarship has ultimately eclipsed the idea of my nonprofit media company (especially as I progressed into the PhD program), I found myself catapulted back into this world for the final assignment in 795. Shedding Light (the name of the short lived organization I began) was revived in my mind, but it took a slightly different form. This time, it was as a part of a classroom and it was grounded in a pedagogical/theoretical concept known by various names, but perhaps most notably as ‘service learning.’

The idea of the importance of an awareness of the social or the civic is very old in rhetorical pedagogy circles. In the early part of the twentieth century, John Dewey proposed a social agenda, which was mirrored decades later by John Trimbur’s social turn. In technical writing, I have been pleasantly surprised at the breadth and depth of scholarly engagement with nonprofit organizations and alternative student projects. As Addams et al explain, there are many benefits to organizing technical and professional writing syllabi around specific real world client interactions. These include assignments that are perceived as “more challenging, interesting, and valuable than traditional theory-based assignments” and have been shown to be beneficial by increasing “opportunities for problem solving, critical reasoning, and adaptability in diverse organizations—skills required for successful business careers” (Addams, 283). Service learning also provides tangible results and a unique opportunity to discuss ethical issues in a technical writing classroom.

This participatory, community based structure has worked all over the social and physical sciences recently. Clay Spinuzzi, writing in the technical writing community, describes participatory design “as a way to understand knowledge by doing: the traditional, tacit, and often invisible (in the sense of Nardi and Engestrom 1999; Muller 1999) ways that people perform their everyday activities and how those activities might be shaped productively” (Spinuzzi, 163).   When a visual element is included in this method, other kinds of knowledge are captured and stored which will have the added benefit of relieving the researcher of the Sisyphean task of verbally recording ‘everything.’

This is a mine of scholarship that I have not explored sufficiently enough to go much further here, so I will move directly into what makes this syllabus different than other service learning forays into technical writing: the addition of a visual, material component. Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole provides a space for serious consideration of the material and social aspects of multimodality in composition and technical writing. Pointing out that communication and literacy have always been essentially multimodal and that the tendency to label and compartmentalize new and digital media limits the potential of these ‘dissimilar’ texts, Shipka offers a theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical framework with which to re-examine the “complex and highly distributed processes associated with the production of texts” (Shipka, 13). Along with detailed case studies of her own students’ multimodal compositions, Shipka deploys a socio-cultural approach that seeks to attend to “the social and individual aspects of composing processes without losing sight of the wide variety of genres, sign systems, and technologies that composers routinely employ while creating texts” (14). Shipka also makes the specific call for more experimentation with regard to multimodal research methods for evaluating multimodal composition pedagogies. This class is an actualization of Shipka’s hypothesis and a blatant attempt to move technical writing forward by framing multimodality in the concept of service learning.

In many ways, this syllabus is an attempt to answer the call by Gregory Ulmer, John Law and others for more evidence about the effectiveness of new methods across the social sciences and the role of digital media. What will it mean for an advanced writing class to think about objects differently in the spirit of Bruno Latour and Clay Spinuzzi and in a multimodal fashion after Cynthia Selfe, Diana George and W.J.T. Mitchell?   And how will a multimodal pedagogy be influenced by and evaluated through the use of a service learning strategy? It is early to make grand claims, but I believe this class offers a new way of thinking about gathering and producing digital material/qualitative data/media in a technical writing classroom.

Other scholars have investments in thinking differently about materiality and the role of digital and visual technologies in the writing process and these have influenced the shaping of this class as well. I am especially interested in the possible connections between editing in a non-linear digital environment and the kinds of fragmented writing described by Dorothy Winsor in her 1994 article Invention and Writing in Technical Work: Representing the Object. Winsor looks into the ways three engineering graduate students used various types of writing to produce a report for an independent study project. One particularly interesting aspect of Winsor’s study reconsidered the value of fragmentary lists and notes; a form of writing that normally goes unexamined. She finds that “these fragmentary forms allowed (the students) to represent ideas that were still in flux without having to pin those ideas down prematurely” (Winsor 852). This unfixed form of note taking as opposed to sustained prose mirrors the work of an editor and may prove beneficial to for students struggling with devising ideas.

Another way to think about fragmented collections of text is the archive. In Claiming the Archive for Rhetoric and Composition, Susan Wells engages the concept of the archives, which she claims is “another kind of reading—which is to say, another kind of writing” (Wells 911). Following Derrida’s Archive Fever, she offers three specific reasons that a re-examination of the archive is a valuable intellectual and rhetorical endeavor: “resistance to our first thought, freedom from resentment, and the possibility of reconfiguring our relation to history” (913).   Wells evocation of Walter Benjamin’s epically fragmented Arcades Project can be connected to Winsor’s ideas about the benefits of note taking in technical writing.

As one of the founders of Actor Network Theory, John Law writes from an interdisciplinary technoscientific perspective that provides a third way to think about fragmented reading and writing. In the Introduction to his 2002 Aircraft Stories, Law riffs through several ways to begin his description of the ill fated British military aircraft, the TSR2. He attempts to avoid both the modernist trap of grand narratives and the “pluralist diaspora…the broken fragments celebrated by postmodernism (that) are just as much a product of modernism as its own streamlined coherences ever were” (Law 2). Noting the need for specificity, Law offers the concept of ‘fractional coherence’ as a strategy to discuss the multiplicity inherent in all objects (and knowing subjects) without positing a homogenizing center or defining explanation. The multiplicities “interfere with one another and shuffle themselves together to make…singularities” (3).

I am interested in developing a pedagogy that views multimodal technical composition as an arrangement of fragmentary media with the potential to coalesce into a meaningful, persuasive whole.  I believe that this process might aid in knowledge transference as well as creation in post-secondary composition classrooms. Winsor, Wells and Law all provide instructive ways to approach a multimodal, object-oriented pedagogy. While the structure of ENGL 462 may not be right for an overt deployment of theories of actor networks and fragmented ontologies, the assignments are designed to reflect the importance of a more nuanced understanding of materiality and a more inclusive definition of composition to include non-discursive modalities.

Bibliography

 

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