Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sexual Chocolate

Non-academically speaking, Jeff Sirc is a total trip. I mean, before today, I could say that I had never read an academic essay that ended with the words “sexual chocolate”! And as unruly and outright abrasive as his views can be (see: full-fledged attack on D. Bartholomae), I appreciated the complete break from convention and politeness that Sirc displayed (I just tried to think of a word more casual than ‘display,’ since it seems hypocritical to throw down such an “academese” term directly after praising someone for the unconventional. But I failed. I’m a sucker.)

Comparing the field of composition studies to modern art, Sirc praised French artist Duchamp for pushing the expectations, challenging the bounds, and entertaining the alternative/rebellious side of modernism in art. Similarly, he’d like to see modern compositionists turn from their old ways of “defin[ing] [their] ends in terms of narrowly-conceived means (or better, conceiv[ing] of [their] means according to limited ends), despite the modern world’s take-over” (180). His main criticism, then, is that “experts” in our niche field (a field which, he seemed to think, is not too relevant, or of high importance, in the broader world of writing) have constructed a far too limited litmus test of what constitutes “good” versus “bad” writing. Instead, he thinks instructors should view writing in a way that allows student compositions to simply be celebrated as art for art’s sake--turning from assessment of subjective beauty to that of inclusive art.

Through his harsh criticism of David Bartholomae, Sirc asserts that compositionists need to rid themselves of arbitrary judgment-calls and social analyses that are based on individual taste and “literary hmm” and instead consider the dynamic compositional changes happening in the Interzone that can lead to a distracted wow.

George, Yancey, Wysocki

Speaking of dynamic compositional changes, these three seem to make powerful teammates in the battle for visual validity in composition studies. Much like Sirc, they are calling scholars to the task of expanding views and practices around visual literacy, so as not to view its manifestations as simple punctuations of written text, but rather as integral parts of the compositions themselves (Yancey 299). An important thing to note, too, is that both Wysocki and Yancey actually demonstrate a more complex use of the visual in their own compositions, which, Wysocki says, is meant to urge readers to “begin considering what kinds of constraints are placed on academic (and other argument by the ‘appropriate’ page layout we have inherited” (182).

From George’s perspective, most people have already accepted the idea that visual influences are an important and pervasive part of our society. Her argument, then, focuses on our tendency to be stuck in a “vague call for attention to ‘visual literacy’ in the writing class” (15) without articulating how complicated it is and how its application might work in a present-day classroom. In other words, “reading” the images in See Jane Run doesn’t hold a candle to the complex relationships involved in participating in multimodal design today. In her historical overview, George points to evidence that visual literacy instruction hasn’t reached far beyond using “low culture” images to support the “high culture” words on a page (31). I’m hearing echoes of Sirc in her notion that English teachers need to move beyond their Luddite ways of favoring the hallowed word-based composition over the “image-rich” realities that surround our students outside of our classroom walls. However, her own visual presentation and verbal discourse screams traditional "academese."

Wysocki focuses on the rhetorical decisions behind multimodal design, and while I appreciate her emphasis on social analysis, I think it's one that Sirc would find too imposing and/or uptight (see: his bashing of Bartholomae's social approach to his student's St. Croix travel narrative). As Wysocki states, “To be responsible teachers, then, we need to help our students (as well as ourselves) learn how different choices in visual arrangement in all texts (on screen and off) encourage different kinds of meaning making and encourage us to take up (overtly or not) various values” (186). In Wysocki's eyes, it's more than art for art's is about the self-reflexive in relation to the cultural.

And Yancey seems to agree, as she believes that multimodal literacies are “textured in relationship to each other” and “are social in a way that school literacy all too often only pretends to be” (302).

So, in contrast to Sirc's promotion of the freedom of individual expression without baggage of cultural meaning-making, these three scholars value the awareness of the socio-cultural situatedness of the composer. Where they would agree with him, though, is in the way he criticizes student assessments that are based on privileged taste and subjective preference. They also seem to agree that in this “convergence of digital and physical space” (Yancey quoting Frank Lantz, 302), students--and the world at large--will only benefit from going beyond being "passive recipients of technology" (Wysocki 192) and engaging in an active relationship with “...the intertexual, overlapping curricular spaces—between school and the public, including print and screen” (Yancey 320-321).

These readings all get me closer to an understanding of what teaching with technology could mean for me-- that instead of merely teaching students to "fill up those templates and fill in those electronic boxes" (Yancey 320), I can ask them to engage in, and reflect on, their everyday "rendezvous" (Sirc 184) with the multimodal texts that are already in their lives. I can stress the relationships, not the skills; the rhetorical choices, not the blind rule-following. But I can't promise that I can be cool enough to conclude my own academic compositions with phrases like “sexual chocolate.”

See, I even needed to add this meaningless closing line just to prove my point. :)

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