Enacting Visual and Digital Rhetorics through Multimodal Book Reviews: A Collaborative Webtext Produced in a Graduate Seminar in Fall 2014

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During the Fall semester of 2014, a group of us took a graduate seminar on multimodal composing at Michigan State University (taught by Dànielle Nicole DeVoss). In the course, we read, discussed, and built on theories and practices in digital and visual rhetorics. In this blog post, we share one of our course assignments: a multimodal book review project that we hope will inspire further conversation and engagement with the DRC community.

One of the tasks we faced in this course was immersing ourselves in past and current conversations around visual rhetoric and multimodal composing by focusing on themes of visual culture, issues of interfaces and spaces, policies on copyright and remix, conversations about assessment of multimodal work, and speculations about the futures of visual-digital rhetorics. We saw the conversations, the tensions, and the questions that scholars contributed to our understandings of visual-digital rhetoric as research, pedagogy, and scholarly practice. W. J. T. Mitchell (1981), in exploring, from a literary perspective, approaches to the “systematic study of the way that relationships among elements are represented and interpreted by graphic constructions” (p. 623), asserted that:

One of the crucial mediations that occurs in the history of cultural forms is the interaction between verbal and pictorial modes of representation. We rarely train scholars, however, to be sensitive to this crucial point of conflict, influence, and mediation and insist on on separating the study of texts and images from one another… (p. 627)

One of the goals of the class, and specifically the multimodal book review project we discuss in this post, was to resist that division between verbal and pictorial modes so that we could unite studies of text and image (albeit not necessarily from a literary scholarship vantage point, as Mitchell was, but rather from the perspective of rhetoric and composition studies). As we studied visual and digital rhetorics, we also wanted to not only write and talk about this scholarship, but to also produce work that engages multiple modes and forms of composition. Creating multimodal book reviews allowed us to meet these objectives while simultaneously giving us the chance to enter (and hopefully start!) ongoing conversations in our areas of study.

The Assignment: Multimodal Book Reviews

For our multimodal book review assignment, we were asked to select any book related to, influenced by, and/or influencing document design or visual rhetoric. As we read our selected books, we were asked to address several questions:

  • Why should we pay attention to document design or to visual rhetoric?
  • What should we know about document design or about visual rhetoric?
  • How might document design—or visual rhetoric—influence our teaching practices?
  • How might document design—or visual rhetoric—sync with our composition practices? Our rhetorical values?
  • What are some of the key trends or threads in document design—or visual rhetoric—scholarship?

After initially writing our reviews, we were asked to consider how we could use other modes to highlight elements of our selected books. At this point in the course, we had read and discussed pieces such as Steve Westbrook’s (2006) “Visual Rhetoric in a Culture of Fear: Impediments to Multimedia Production” and Cheryl Ball’s (2004) “Show, not tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship,” which inspired us to think about how we could use multimodality to extend and emphasize the arguments we make through alphabetic texts. Our multimodal book reviews, in turn, aimed to leverage the affordances of multimodality while allowing us to share our work with a wider community. Because our book reviews unite alphabetic text in multimodal ways across in digital spaces, we hope that they will be useful to students, teachers, and practitioners in our field, and that they will inspire further discussion and collaboration. We also decided to compile our book reviews into a collaborative webtext, illustrating the various approaches to multimodality that our class embraced to complete this assignment.

Click here to visit our site and check out the reviews we’ve compiled.

Through our work on these book reviews and in the course more generally, we saw the ways in which scholars spoke to each other in their work–the ways in which they contrasted, questioned, complemented, and drew upon each other’s claims in rich and layered ways. We hope that sharing our book review projects on the DRC site will encourage other classes, instructors, and students to continue engaging in conversation not only about books in digital and visual rhetoric, but also about the value of learning from these texts together. We invite you to contribute reviews of books in digital and visual rhetoric by emailing the Sweetland DRC fellows (drcfellows@umich.edu).

In addition, book reviews are always welcomed on the DRC Wiki, which is an emerging space to share knowledge about the field of digital rhetoric and computers and writing. We would also love to hear your thoughts and ideas about the book reviews we’ve shared on this site, and would be happy to share any materials from our project.

About Author(s)

Heather Noel Turner is a PhD student in WRAC. She is most passionate about computers and writing. Her research seeks to answer questions concerning visual rhetoric, design, and community engagement and knowledge making (in both physical and digital environments).

Laura Gonzales is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Texas, El Paso. Her research focuses on highlighting the benefits of linguistic diversity in professional and academic spaces.

Phil is a Ph.D candidate at Michigan State University in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures department. His current interests are in rhetorics of activism, visual rhetorics, embodiment, rhetorical ecologies, digital writing, and pedagogy. Check out more about his work on http://www.philbratta.com/

John Gagnon is a Ph.D. student and University Distinguished Fellow in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures Department at Michigan State University. He specializes in cultural rhetorics and is primarily interested in the intersections of rhetoric and activism in marginalized communities. His recent work has explored visually and digitally mediated responses to contemporary slavery. John holds J.D. and M.S. degrees from Tulane University and a B.A. from Andrews University.

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