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The Emergence of a (Reluctant) Leader

by Ben McCorkle


In this section, I will briefly narrate a case study of one of my basic writing students, whom I refer to as Legrand. I will also provide some initial commentary about my course design and rationale in order to establish the pedagogical context within which this student worked. Although Legrand is still developing skills as a writer, I maintain that he made important progress in the course, acquiring an enhanced rhetorical understanding as well as an invaluable sense of authority in the classroom.



First of all, I would like to offer a brief description of my basic writing course. Titled “New Media Approaches to Reading and Writing,” the course was designed to offer students a range of assignments combining traditional writing and new media production. The concept of how genres are constructed and sustained by textual and media-specific conventions was a central line of discussion throughout the term. Our course reader was the multi-media text Convergences, which we discussed in an online discussion board; additionally, topics raised in the reading selections served as heuristics for the assignment clusters. Class time was spent primarily as a writing studio, where I and a teaching assistant circulated among the fifteen students, offering robust and frequent feedback. From the outset, I was interested in building a strong sense of continuity through the various assignments, and my prompts were written in such a way to encourage students to think about topics, readings, high concepts, and their own rhetorical choices through sustained focus. Thus, I organized my assignments in three distinct clusters, which I'll describe in a moment, and evaluated them as a single portfolio at the end of the term.



At the high-concept planning stage, I knew that I wanted to have students produce some type of digital text in conjunction with conventional writing tasks. The rationale for incorporating digital media assignments into my basic writing course, as I see it, is twofold:

  1. This approach advocates for the production of digital media texts for its own sake. By now it is a well-rehearsed argument that the material boundaries of those texts that we call “writing” are expanding, slipping, and metamorphosing into entirely different shapes. Students need to become familiar with those shapes, as they may be expected to produce these new types of texts in real-world contexts.
  2. Digital media production also helps enhance students' conceptual understanding of the rhetorical process by rendering the familiar strange. The rhetorical dimensions of writing can often hide from students' views precisely because they have been for so long immersed in the written word. Armed with a new perspective of how a text's form or medium carries with it unique rhetorical considerations, students can employ this newly enhanced awareness within the conventional writing process.

This rationale, particularly as it relates to developing an understanding of the rhetorical process, informs how I approach assessment in the course. I place a lot of value on process when I evaluate student performance in my basic writing course, maybe even moreso than in my first-year course. Because of the relatively small class size and the amount of face-time I get with each student on a daily basis, I have the opportunity to obtain a lot of information from them through reflective writing or conversations about the different rationales or strategies they consider as they create and revise their pieces. How they choose to incorporate feedback, the kinds of comments they make during studio critique sessions, the follow-up posts they make to our online discussion forum, and similar meta-discursive moments all provide them the chance to demonstrate their awareness of the rhetorical process. While I evaluate the overall effectiveness of the final products that show up in their individual portfolios at the end of the quarter, my assessment of the way that those products took shape is certainly a major component of their final grades.


Assignment Clusters

The main component of our coursework is made up of three separate assignment clusters, or groupings of exercises designed to strengthen students' writing and analytical thinking. Each cluster also includes a new media production assignment designed to expand students' understanding of literacy practices in our contemporary multimedia context.

“Cluster One: Writing with Words and Images.” This assignment cluster consists of a 2-page description/analysis of either a CD album cover or an advertisement from a popular magazine. Students then create album cover parodies or spoof advertisements using Adobe Photoshop, accompanied by a 1-2 page designer's rationale. Finally, students write a 3-4 page comparative analysis of related visual texts (such as an album cover and an advertisement featuring the same band or artist).

“Cluster Two: Writing with Words and Sound.” After selecting a relevant social issue based on readings from our text (homelessness, gang violence, animal cruelty, etc.), students are asked to write a proposal for a Public Service Announcement (PSA) on that issue. After consulting with the instructor on the proposal, students then produce their own PSAs using Audacity audio software, supplementing their own scripted voice-overs with background music and other ambient sounds. These PSAs are then submitted to the entire class for studio critique, after which they are re-edited.

“Cluster Three: Writing with Multiple Media Forms.” Students first write a 2-page personal reflection of an influential visual text such as a comic book, video game, television show, or film. This assignment is followed by a more formal, 3-4 page evaluative essay on a similar text. Finally, working in pairs, students produce short Flash-like animations using PowerPoint. These short animations are meant to be trailers for hypothetical films or video games. Students storyboard their ideas and consult with the instructor before beginning actual production. Again, works-in-progress are brought before the entire class for studio critique, after which they are re-edited.



I choose to focus on one student's corpus of work not as an example of a magical, transformative shift owing to the introduction of digital media assignments, but rather as a narrative of how such assignments can help uncover the hidden talents of students who may seem slightly cowed because of their lack of aptitude when it comes to writing. Legrand was not among the stronger students in the class, but he did make important progress nonetheless, some of it measurable and some (I suspect) still nascent. An African-American male in his late teens, Legrand came into my class as a wallflower, painfully shy and visibly uncomfortable when called upon during discussion. He typically spoke in single-word responses, despite my entreaties to have him elaborate. Legrand's written expression paralleled his verbal expression: for example, his initial draft of the CD cover description, a 2-page assignment, was only 3 sentences long. However, when Legrand completed the advertising spoof assignment for Cluster One (a decent cut-and-paste placement of his own head-shot in an AMD microprocessor ad along with a rationale more about his love of Photoshop and computers than an explanation of the rhetorical choices underlying his design), it became apparent that as a budding computer science major, he could play a much larger role in our class. I began encouraging him to take up this role. He began troubleshooting, helping his peers with technical issues related not only to Photoshop, but also the sound-editing software Audacity and PowerPoint later in the term. I confess that at first, I occasionally deferred to Legrand on questions I already knew the answers to, but I soon discovered that in certain areas, he actually knew quite a bit more than I did, and I even consulted with him on technical matters on more than one occasion.

The digital media assignments for Clusters Two and Three were both collaborative projects, and for both of these, Legrand voluntarily teamed up with Daniel, one of the stronger writers in the class. The pair's audio Public Service Announcement [MP3 | WAV] and PowerPoint-based hypothetical movie trailer [WMV | AVI | MOV] alike were easily the best-realized products in the class—the former, a complex layering of music, ambient sound, and a well-scripted voice-over imploring its audience to take action to quell inner-city gang violence, the latter a smooth integration of sound, found images, futuristic fonts, and tasteful animation resulting in a trailer for a somewhat plausible post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. Both projects demonstrated a strong understanding of their respective genres on their faces, and Legrand and Daniel's associated written assignments, which called for students to actually verbalize their rhetorical strategies in the production of these digital media projects, also demonstrated this awareness. Additionally, as I spoke with Daniel and Legrand during their production sessions, I pushed Legrand to explain in some detail why he had chosen a particular font, color scheme, or image, which he was generally able to do to my satisfaction.

Upon leaving my class, Legrand certainly showed some tangible improvement as a student, this likely abetted in part by his increased level of engagement with the digital media-infused curriculum. By the end of the term, he began writing more, actually breaking the two-page barrier on one assignment, and he was able to begin talking about his own composing process (fostering that meta-awareness, in my estimation, is perhaps the biggest cognitive step for a basic writing student to take, one that potentially pays dividends beyond the confines of my classroom). But in addition to those valuable tools, Legrand picked up some intangible tools that have value outside of the classroom. Not only do I suspect that he developed a stronger sense of self-esteem, but by taking on more of a leadership role in the classroom, Legrand formed a stronger sense of authority that he carried with him out into the real world. In fact, the last time I checked in on him, Legrand had gotten a job at a tech-support call center.


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