The scholarly context
Although Brooks developed this assignment quite literally and specifically out of the Tufte-Byrne exchange in Wired, it was also influenced by Geoffrey Sirc's English Composition as a Happening and "Box Logic," the latter an essay-in-development that Sirc read at The Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing Conference in 2002, now available in Writing New Media. The assignment was also grounded in the specific scholarship of multimodal composition, as well as Anthony Ellertson's essays, "Some Notes on Simulacra Machines," now available in Kairos but first presented at the same conference in 2002. The wider body of scholarship on new literacy and new media studies also influenced, and now supports, this and other kinds of new media assignemnts. The music video assignment was not, and still is not, exclusively an assignment about "composing with sound," but this special issue of Computers and Composition Online presented us an opportunity to research and reflect on that specific element of the assignment.
Understanding Sirc's influence is important to understanding this assignment. Some readers will watch the videos produced by our students and will undoubtedly question the absence of critical reflection, perhaps perceive an immaturity of thought behind some of the videos, or question the seemingly uncritical acceptance of PowerPoint as the primary tool of production for this assignment. But if PowerPoint is a box—constraining and limiting, an acceptable but awkward space in which to deposit one's items—it enables a "box logic" that Sirc describes as a
grammar which could prove useful in guiding our classroom practice in light of rapidly shifting compositional media: it allows both textual pleasure, as students archive their personal collections of text and imagery, and formal practice in learning the compositional skills that seem increasingly important in contemporary culture. (114)
PowerPoint, when compared with Flash or other "boxes" for composing, allows "an eas[ier] entré into composition, a compelling medium and genre with which to re-arrange textual materials—both original and appropriated—in order to have those materials speak the student's own voice and concerns" ("Box Logic" 113). Students, as we will explain, become immersed in the project, become what Sirc calls "passionate collectors," and they "work with the lived texts of desire (rather than, say, the middlebrow academia of a Jane Tompkins for Mary Louise Pratt)" ("Box Logic" 117). They show their videos to friends and family members, and some imagine themselves doing another video for special occasions or just as a form of self-expression: "life is long, college is short; do we teach to life or college?" ("Box Logic" 113).
Having just tried to justify the lack of critical edge to some of the video products, we must also note that we expected and saw quite a bit of intellectual and technical work going on within the video production process, as well as tremendous student commitment and effort. The emerging scholarship on multimodal composition consistently makes these same points about engagement and learning. Anthony Ellertson, drawing on interviews with three students who had produced argumentative videos (distinct from our music video assignment) with Flash, says "My experience in teaching Flash is that I have to tell my students to stop trying new things with the program rather than coaxing them to learn it" ("Some Thoughts"). Within the student sections of his webtext, Ellertson's students describe sophisticated compositional techniques, they talk about their awareness of audience, and they explain what they learned about the composition of new media—their own and others. They also reflect on the role music played to give their videos: Travis used a dance song to give his video a beat, Brandon used the refrain from Buffalo Springfields' "For What It's Worth" to re-enforce a central theme in his post 9/11 video ("Stop children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down"), and Alex used The Smashing Pumkin's "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" to express rage and angst in another post 9/11 video. While Ellertson does not provide extensive analysis of how each student used sound and music, he does provide a clear assessment of what he thinks happens when students compose with sound and in new media: "When students can take a song that has meant something to them and combine it with text and images in a way that repurposes the media to deliver a personal message, something powerful has been put into their hands" ("Some Thoughts").
Brooks was initially drawn to the PowerPoint music video assignment, then, because of what he saw in Ellertson's students, what he heard in Sirc's "Box Logic" and other riffs, and what he saw and heard in Byrne's EEEI. But he also believed his students could learn quite a bit about composing and rhetoric, and he believed that students' engagement with new media might also lead to stronger print-based work based on a new literacy or new media experiment. Other scholars have begun to articulate the learning potential of these non-traditional assignments. Jody Shipka concludes her essay on multimodal composing by listing 13 ways in which her assignments can help students meet the WPA Outcomes for composition courses (302). James Paul Gee has generated 36 learning principles potentially found in video games (207-12). A music video assignment used in a composition class is not obviously an intellectually or technically demanding task; our first-year students initially thought the video would only take a few hours to complete, and the new GTAs teaching the assignment were skeptical of its value and rigor. Readers of this essay might immediately see or perceive the intellectual and technical demands of this assignment, but as the WIDE Collective points out in their Kairos webtext, "Why Teach Digital Writing," those of us who teach digtial writing also have to be able to communicate and document those challenges. We hope that this study will add to the growing body of literature that describes, documents, and articulates the challenges and learning opportunities in digital compositions and writing new media.
As we and others continue this kind of classroom and assignment-based research, it is going to be important to show and/or talk about the full range of compositions produced to better understand what students are capable of doing and what expectations we as instructors should have for these new media products. Ellertson acknowledges that he interviewed the three students who produced the most sophisticated videos in his class. We also need to remember that the awkward and incomplete multimodal compositions might still be a positive learning experience. We fall back into the logic of modernist, essayist composition if we can only value the well-wrought urn.
Byrne and Tufte, Sirc, and Ellertson most directly influenced the genesis and development of this assignment, but instructors at NDSU typically teach the music video in the context of a whole unit on "new literacy." The music video assignment is a hands-on exploration and experimentation in developing new literacy skills and products, followed by a print-based commentary or proposal that asks students to enter the ongoing discussion about new literacy. Students are asked to read and understand some of the popular literature on this topic, stretching back to 1990s articles--Seymour Papert's "The Obsolete Skill Set"; Melvin Levinson's "Needed: A New Literacy"; Alice Yucht's "Strategy: New Literacy Skills Needed"--up through more recent popular calls for and concerns about new literacy (the Byrne-Tufte debate and Sarah Armstrong and David Warlick's "The New Literacy"). Students are also introduced to the distinction between surface web and deep web (database) searching and are asked to find additional voices in the new literacy conversation. We use material from these essays to emphasize the relevance and pertinence of composing music videos in a composition class—Papert rails against the "obsolete skill set," Levinson advocates a broadened definition of reading and writing to include all kinds of text and all kinds of compositions, Yucht adds "aRt, Reasoning, and Respect" to the traditional three "Rs," and Armstrong and Warlick replace the three Rs with the four Es: exposing knowledge, employing information, expressing ideas compellingly, and ethics. Students are encouraged to draw on their experience composing the music video as they enter into this conversation about new literacy.