Visual Literacies

Selfe, Cynthia. “Toward New Media Texts.” Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. 67-110. 2004.

Selfe’s piece here meditates on approaches to how composition instruction might fold in issues related to visual literacy. She offers a provisional definition (69) to ground her exploration, a definition that focuses on abilities to understand, read, create, combine and otherwise engage visuals in the service of communication.

Her aim in this article is two-fold: to, in a sense, meet students half way to, “pay more serious attention to the ways in which students are now ordering and making sense of the world through the production and consumption of visual images”; and to “extend the usefulness of composition studies in a changing world” (72).

Selfe offers a collection of activities and assignments at the end of her piece (75-110), and the first one, which has students compose a visual essay and to reflect on the range of literacies they attend or have attended to in their lives. Such a project caught my eye as a beginning of semester project for first-year writing students for two reasons. First, it seems to work well in the curriculum of EMU’s fywp in that we emphasize genre awareness. Becoming mindful of the genres around them, and the conventions and contexts of the literacies those genres might entail. What I also like about the potential of such a project is the bringing into awareness of how literate students might actually be in the literacies they detail.

I’m thinking of Stuart Selber here, and Selber’s framework of literacy as functional, critical, or rhetorical. Such a project would, hopefully, invite students to reflect on the literacies they engage with in their lives and how comfortable they are engaging them. In other words, such a project and essay might allow for classroom conversations in which students might become aware of those literacies in which they might be at a functional level, perhaps by comparing such literacies to those in which they might be engaging with more of a critical or rhetorical stance.

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2 thoughts on “Visual Literacies

  1. Somewhere in the subtext of Selfe’s essay is a tremendously important issue for visual rhetoric, and I think your reference to Selber might help us get at it, as well. It’s this: does a rhetorical literacy involving visual objects require students to make visual objects (e.g., photographs, page layouts, remixes, etc.)? Or, can we do justice to rhetorical literacy for images just by engaging in analysis, critique, and use of already established images? I pose this not because I think these readings provide a clear-cut answer, but because I hope we’ll have time to talk about this tomorrow evening.

    1. I was rereading Selfe’s piece yesterday, and what struck me about her provisional definition and the quote I bolded above was that focus on composing visual images. In a classroom context, I’m thinking through possible approaches to a visual composition/essay assignment. One idea that tickles me is having students compose and reflect on the essay, and then take it a step further and have them teach some aspect of their composition. In other words, students might produce visual essays individually, then, in small groups, create and present a 10-15 minute lesson on one part of that composing process, e.g., one group may discuss, form, and present a lesson on arrangement, while another group might present style, and so on. Teaching as learning is a practice I think I can use more of in the classroom.

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