Seeing Composition Three Dimensionally
“We no longer have to separate our material technologies so radically as we once did from our 'cognitive strategies'. People-with-bodies participate in activities and practices, such as jointly authoring a multimedia Web document, in which we and our appliances are partners in action; in which who we are and how we act is as much a function of what's at-hand as of what's in-head.”
~ J.L. Lemke, “Metamedia Literacy: Transforming Meanings and Media”
First, a Story
One of my favorite childhood memories is of me helping my dad in the garden. A hardworking individual who dealt with a lot of stress, dad was always at peace among his veggies and flowers. The garden was a place where he could spend time with plants that needed (but did not demand) his attention; among his many plants, dad could be creative, whimsical, relaxed; absolved from the everyday stresses of work, family, and life.
And so as a teenager I very much enjoyed spending time with my father in his garden, trimming banana trees, repotting hibiscus, tending strawberries, and watering bright green bell peppers in the hot summer sun. But one day in the garden something unusual happened. Near the Muscadine vine I saw a small, brown creature stirring uncomfortably in the underbrush. I pushed aside the big flat grape leaves and realized that the source of movement was a mouse, severed almost in half by a neighbor’s lawnmower. I immediately cried out “Dad! Quick! There’s a mouse in the vines!” He hurried over, his hands brown from digging. “What do we do?” I asked. “We have to put it out of its misery. Go get the shovel.” Dad said.
I hurried back with the shovel, a big heavy thing with a thick wooden handle and a sharp curved rim. I didn’t know what dad planned to do—was the shovel for burying the rat? “Now what?” I asked, panting. “I want you to take the shovel, Bo (that’s what dad called me) and hit the mouse as hard and as quickly as you can on the head. We don’t want him to suffer.”
I had never killed anything before, outside of house spiders and cockroaches. “How do I do that?” I asked, horrified. “Do I do it with the broad end or the sharp end or what?” I would have asked dad if he would do it, but I knew a dad-to-daughter life lesson motivated this moment. “You want to use the big rounded part, honey. Here’s how you do it….”
Dad then went on to demonstrate with his own rough, mechanic/gardener hands how the deed was done. He showed me how to hold the handle, how to put my weight in my front leg, how to move my arms in one smooth, rapid motion. And I went on to do it…to kill the sad little mouse who saw me more as savior than executioner. It felt good to know that all it took was one—rather than two—hard thumps to get the job done. Although I still hate that it was me, rather than dad, who had to kill the mouse in our garden, I’m glad I could help a soul find peace.
Second, a Proposal
My moment in the garden with my father is a perfect illustration of how seeing a concept in action helped me learn what I needed to do to accomplish a task. Hearing dad describe the process wouldn’t have been enough. In fact, I find it interesting that most of my learning experiences with my father were grounded in him showing, rather than telling, me how to do something, a process which reflected both his own learning style and method for teaching others.
I wonder, then: to what extent can composition classrooms operate in a similar fashion? Can we ask students to spend time demonstrating, rather than just writing about, the ideas they want to communicate? Ironically, many educators agree that using visual tools to teach students is useful, but at the same time often discourage students from using demonstration as the primary mode for informing and persuading others. The reason, of course, is because writing—much more so than showing, speaking, performing, and other forms of communication—is the favored academic mode of discourse (Selfe, “The Movement of Air” and Hill “Reading the Visual in College Writing Classes”).
Compositionists, however, have begun to challenge the “writing rules all” mindset. In her 2002 article “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing” Diana George, for instance, argues that “current discussions of visual communication and writing instruction have only tapped the surface of possibilities for the role of visual communication in the composition class” (12). She goes on to emphasize that because of this trend, composition as a field must thoroughly re-imagine the kinds of assignments that might occur in writing classrooms (14-15) and begin to see the benefits of asking students to engage in visual communication and argumentation.
George, however, is not alone in her re-envisioning of the composition classroom as a space where visuals play a role in student learning. Gunther Kress and van Leeuwen (Reading Images), Stephen Bernhardt (“Seeing the Text”), The New London Group (“A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies”) and Cynthia Selfe (“Toward New Media Texts”), among many others, argue for a similar approach, stressing that our highly visual culture demands that we rethink the relationship between written and visuals texts. These writers also argue that composition classrooms, though already “burdened” with the task of teaching students how to read, write, and research, must still find space in the curriculum for teaching students how to create visually and rhetorically compelling texts.
While I agree with these writers’ assertions about the role of visual rhetoric in writing classrooms, I would take this one step further by arguing that our classrooms must also become spaces where we ask students to tap into the multidimensional aspects of visual communication. What I mean by this is that while encouraging students to use two-dimensional images, videos, graphic art, etc. is useful, we must also invite them to think about how they can use the three-dimensional aspects of physical objects and persons to craft rhetorically sound arguments. That moment in the garden with my dad, for instance, was not only a visual learning experience; it was also aural and tactile. The sound of my father’s voice, the weight of the shovel, the movements of the injured mouse all converged to create a rich, dynamic, and unforgettable learning experience.
Ironically, one of the most significant impediments to students seeing communication as a three-dimensional act is the presence of technology for creating and communicating ideas. Yes, technological tools like Trimble SketchUp, YouTube, WordPress, and Prezis, (just to name a few) allow students to create visually stimulating and rhetorically-savvy texts, but these creations cannot exist outside of the interfaces they reside within. A three-dimensional object, by contrast, can be moved in space and time; it can be physically touched, altered, and interacted with. The differences between these two types of communication are important as they facilitate learning and comprehension in very different ways. Think, for instance, about museums or libraries designed for children’s education; these spaces, unlike adult educational centers, are designed around the concept that an individual learns best when he or she can have a three-dimensional interaction with an object or person. Why should composition classrooms be any different? Why aren’t our students creating and designing texts which encourage moments of physical interaction and engagement?
My ultimate point is this: rather than call for composition teachers to tease out one or two aspects of multimodality to enrich their classrooms (as does Selfe regarding the aural in her piece “The Movement of Air” and George with visuals in her aforementioned article), we must move toward what Jody Shipka aptly calls a “composition made whole”—a classroom where all modes of communication converge to make meaning.
~ For my dad; my first and best teacher.
[Photo by emmoff]