Digital-Visual Tools and Composing

  • Hilligoss and Williams, “Composition Meets Visual Communication”
  • Turnley, “Towards a Mediological Method: A Framework for Critically Engaging Dimensions of a Medium”
  • Hocks, “Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments”

Hocks calls for a need for a better understanding of “the increasingly visual and interactive rhetorical features of digital documents” (631). This is a pressing concern, to be sure, but what is meant by ‘increasingly visual”? At what point did we decide that things were becoming more visual than before, and how is it that we decided that? It’s clear that the digital has provided a revolutionary means for publishing using so much more than alphabetic text, but doesn’t alphabetic text still dominate the landscape of content on the web, further controlling how we read and interact with that content? In Wysocki’s “Monitoring Order,” she presents a discussion of “how the order of designs and the contexts for all reading all come from culturally framed experiences with literacy,” including how the design of digital texts inherit the same designs as print texts. If readers can and do approach digital texts with the same cultural and spatial assumptions as they do with print, then when and how did/does this increasingly visually-based literacy emerge?

I am fascinated with digital tools and what they mean for composing rhetorically, and I absolutely use them (and try to use them in teaching as much as possible), but sometimes I fear that the discourse that our field has constructed about “interactives” make them sound far more elegant than they really are. Of course digital tools are changing the way we read, write, publish, organize, and make calls to action, I just feel that it’s time we begin talking about them more objectively and maybe a bit more maturely—we’ve covered time and time again how revolutionary these tools are, and now we can maybe focus on saying exactly what they can and cannot do, or rather, what they can’t yet do. Turnley, referring to Debray, mentions the need for non-deterministic approaches to technology as there is a tendency to “decontextualize technologies and present them as either neutral vessels or autonomous forces of social change” (129). When working with tools that allow digital publishing to happen, cultivating this sort of narrative is indeed a fear, and we must encourage students to be critical of the tools themselves, the cultures the include and exclude, and the worlds they tell and create for readers and writers.

I’m most interested in the concept of hybridity, which can describe the mending of visual and verbal writing. Hocks carefully notes that “Historical studies of writing technologies have demonstrated that all writing is hybrid—it is at once verbal, spatial, and visual” (Hocks, 631). This reminds me of the way our field has relegated – through discussions of the digital-visual – multimodality and multimodal texts as solely belonging to the realm of digital texts. While some others have surely unpacked this idea, I’m only familiar with Jody Shipka in Toward a Composition Made Whole, though which she makes the claim that multimodal composing cannot be restricted to the digital in classrooms, which may be limiting for helping students understand the many materialities of composing. I believe that, if rhetoric is to be understood through a cultural frame or understanding, it is about making meaning. If we are to study visual rhetoric, I believe the digital-visual can be understood as just one form of meaning making that resides in a larger, constellating network of artifacts that are inherently visual, from street art to baskets, newsletters to zines, monuments to protests. I want to explore the personal scenes of writing mentioned by Hilligoss and Willaims that have gotten little attention in writing studies, such as journaling, letter writing, note taking, and writing for community causes and settings (243).

“Three decades ago, historical and rhetorical studies in composition were reinvigorated by opening investigation to the wide array of artifacts of individual literacy—journals, diaries, letters, lists, annotations—and to the complex cognitive and social interactions between reading and writing surrounding those artifacts…We suggest that Composition Studies return to that wider notion of inquiry as part of its unique contribution to visual studies” (Hilligoss and Williams, 241-2).

As I’m interested in learning more about digital tools and community organizing, the concept of citizen designer is a welcome term for me because I believe that all readers and writers are designers, and I want to learn more about the everyday composing they do to organize, build community, and actively resist power.

The study of visual-digital rhetoric is vital. It does, however, need to be situated in the larger context of artifacts that can be considered visual. “Acknowledging this hybridity means that the relationships among word and image, verbal texts and visual texts, “visual culture” and “print culture” are all dialogic relationships rather than binary opposites” (Hocks, 631). The notion that there’s a dialogic relationship, a sort of conversation or interplay between visual and print is so important. The topoi that Hocks presents – audience stance, transparency, and hybridity – help present a heuristic for what digital-visual texts are and what they do, and I believe this heuristic can help students analyze any visual text or “composition” (an admittedly vague term). I’m interested in learning more about the composing processes of students while they engage in writing digital-visual texts, and particularly how they can move from analysis to drafting their own “things.” I’m certain that imitation is central to making that jump, as it would be for composing any text—but there must be something out there that I can find which would help display the composing processes of print versus visual texts.