894 Reading Notes: CHAT (Week 6)

In “Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity” Prior et al. describe their project of resituating the rhetorical canon using cultural-historical activity theory as “fundamentally rhizomatic” (23). Thus, I have deemed it appropriate to have a rather rhizomatic post myself, with various offshoots of ideas/ notions that occurred to me as I was reading/experiencing these texts.

Line drawing of a horizontal plant structure with several offshoots coming out of the bottom.
Line Art Drawing of a Rhizome. Image from Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rhizome1_(PSF).png

Digital Communication → Resurgence of Interest in Materiality

As I made my way through the CHAT readings, I was thinking back to a claim made by Bourelle et al in the chapter of Digital Writing Assessment I read, “Assessing Learning in Redesigned Online First Year Composition Classes.” They suggested that the notion of genre was easier for students to conceive of with texts written in electronic environments. I’m still thinking through that idea and saw connections to a renewed interest in materiality that this theory advocates, which to me seems to be influenced by the rise in digital communication which makes use of many modalities to make meaning. Now of course, there is nothing new about multimodal texts. In Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Cheryl Ball and Colin Charlton claim, “Any combination of modes makes a multimodal text, and all texts—every piece of communication that a human composes—use more than one mode. Thus, all writing is multimodal.” They go on to claim:

While the concept of multimodality has enjoyed increased circulation since the turn of the 21st century and been associated with new media or new technologies, rhetoric and composition’s historic approach to the teaching of writing has almost always included the production of multimodal texts. This understanding can be traced from classical rhetorical studies of effective speech design including body and hand gestures, to current concerns with infographics and visual rhetorics.

Page from Understand Rhetoric. Image from http://www.readingwithpictures.org/2014/05/interview-the-understanding-rhetoric-team/

Ball and Charlton’s point is similar to arguments made in Prior et al.’s Core Text and it also connected to a presentation I attended this week. I and one of my colleagues are using Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing as our textbook for first-year writing and we brought one of its co-authors, Elizabeth Losh, to campus to give a talk about the importance of visual literacy including why she decided to write a textbook in the form of a graphic novel. One point she made was that she and her coauthor were inspired by the fact that rhetorical handbooks used to have pictures in them all the time, mostly demonstrating guides for delivery; there was a sense of the value of visual communication in the use of the images that modern textbooks had seemed to get away from.
Now I bring this all up to unpack this notion of multimodality as being new, when in fact it’s not. In my Master’s program I took a class on Modernist Magazines and our entire lense for that class focused on materiality and how various elements within a magazine coalesce to make meaning. It was an incredibly interesting class for me, yet I don’t think I fully grasped the importance of materiality until I revisited some of these ideas when trying to make connections for a digital literacy narrative assignment I had to do for ENGL 665: Teaching Writing with Technology.

There was something about experiencing Carr’s digital text that helped me think more deeply about how the materiality of it affected my experience of it and thus its meaning for me. One thing I am musing on is the question of whether digital technologies have made more visible aspects of textual networks that had always been there, but had been in Latour’s term, “black boxed” in our consciousness. At the end of Walker’s essay, she lists all the hardware and software she used to create her text. Something about this list made the process of production and the choices that implies so much more salient for me.

Memory: Capture and Composition

One of the other CHAT texts I experienced was Jody Shipka and Bill Chewning’sLive Composition: Four  Variations of a Telling.”  This text presents in various forms one student’s recollection of the process of creating a text within Shipka’s class. What struck me the most with this essay was the notion of memory. In the Core Text, the authors remind us that memory was one of the aspects of the classical rhetorical canon that had seemed to fall away with the shift from oral to written communication. Yet memory was a key concept of this piece. In fact the piece came out of Ben’s (the student) recollection of this class activity. At one point when Shipka and Ben are talking through his drawings of the process of the activity, he remarks that he knows he had had two ideas for the project but that the one he liked best at the time he can’t remember now.

Snickers ad which has been badly retouched to include strange details like a disembodied hand atop a bikini model's shoulder
Photographs as compositions is such a ubiquitous notion that Snickers drew on it to poke fun at bad Photoshop. Image from http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/snickers-just-put-most-epic-photoshop-fail-back-sis-swimsuit-issue-169686

In the marked up manuscript of “a telling,” Chewning’s comments encourage Shipka to further discuss moments where Ben’s memory of events seems to differ from Shipka’s. Additionally, towards the end of the discussion Shipka shows Ben pictures from the event and he remarks that what the pictures depicted were “not what I remember.” All of the moments within this text got me thinking about memory and composition/ memory as a form of composition. I was particularly struck by Ben’s reactions to the photographs. The photographs seemed to compose one version of the event while Ben’s memory composed a different one. While we often talk about photographs “capturing a memory,” that’s not really accurate. They are composing a particular narrative. Now thinking of photography as composition is not all that novel for me, especially with the ease of image altering these days. Yet, still thinking about the photograph and Ben’s memory both as compositions, compositions that seem to be in contrast with each other is pushing my notion of composition in really interesting ways that I’m looking forward to exploring further.


Ball, Cheryl and Colin Charlton. “All Writing is Multimodal.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. Utah University Press, 2015. 

Prior, Paul et al. “Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity.” Kairos 11.3 (2007). 

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