Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to design and teach a number of courses in rhetoric, writing, and digital media. Though the content of each course varies significantly, my pedagogical approach always centers on explicitly and empathetically listening to my students. I listen to their interests, their goals, their concerns, and their doubts, building an atmosphere of mutual respect for our individual roles as members of a single classroom community. Over time, these attitudes of empathy and respect start to weave through all areas of the course, including the way we write, read, and interact with one another.
These attitudes even guide the way I design specific writing assignments, as I constantly encourage my students to consider both the difficulties of being a reader and the constraints of being a writer. For example, in both in-person and online Technical Writing classes I require students to compose two technical descriptions on a single topic: one directed at an audience of experts, and another directed at an audience of novices. In the process, we interrogate foundational assumptions about the nature of technical communication, such as the idea that clarity can only be achieved through objective, rational discourse, or that non-experts only look for explicitly “dumbed down” versions of technical information. By encouraging students to choose topics in their field, this assignment also implicitly asks students to consider the kinds of rhetorical situations they will encounter in their personal and professional lives once they leave the university system. The central lessons of the assignment aren’t about how to modulate tone, eliminate jargon, or incorporate metaphor – even though those aspects are certainly present. Rather, the goal is for students to develop a habit of getting into their audience’s heads, considering their writing from a perspective other than their own.
I’ve continued to develop this approach in my Multimedia Writing class, even while I shift the assignments, readings, and discussions to relate to a different set of course objectives. By exploring a range of multimedia genres, including websites, videos, podcasts, and video games, we examine how visual, aural, and procedural conventions connect to contemporary rhetorical theories of audience and situation. In the process, we dig into the language that’s often used to describe multimedia texts, investigating how terms like “flashy” or “minimalist” or “immersive” are formed through the relationship between specific, concrete design decisions and an ongoing rhetorical situation.
As I plan the overarching trajectory of the Multimedia Writing course, I am careful to balance assignments focused on critical analysis with assignments focused on the critical production of multimedia products. Such assignments often take the form of scenario-based case studies linked to our immediate local context or to pressing current events. For example, in one instance students assumed the role of social media coordinators working for the CDC, developing video materials that could be used to quickly communicate the potential risks of the burgeoning Zika virus. In another case, students remix media produced by the local tourism board in order to showcase particular events, places, and landmarks to appeal to a different local audience than the original materials. This practice allows students to understand the rhetorical constraints of designing media products that are simultaneously professional, ethical, and persuasive.
Perhaps the most explicit expression of my pedagogical approach surfaces through my experience mentoring other graduate students. In my role as Technology Mentor for Introductory Composition at Purdue (ICAP), I work with incoming graduate teaching assistants on how to incorporate digital tools and multimedia assignments into their introductory composition courses. By reading current scholarship in multimedia composition pedagogy and working with modern digital tools, new instructors learn how to develop digitally-focused activities, assignments, and rubrics that are pedagogically sound and reflect the required course objectives of the ICAP program. A central focus of this role is to highlight relationships between composing through new media and composing an alphabetic text, making room for new instructors to build connections between multimedia composing and their individual area of study within the English department.
As I look forward to my next teaching opportunities, I hope to continue working with these questions of rhetoric, writing, and new media, because I believe, or at least hope, these subjects guide students to become better listeners to the texts and contexts they encounter on a daily basis.