Monday, June 20, 2005

Todd Taylor's "End of Composition": WTF?

I was taken aback by the standing ovation given to Todd Taylor's featured address "The End of Composition." I don't get it. Oh, I get the multimodal, multimedia composition as composition, and I get the need for our teaching it, even as FYC. What I don't get is what's so revolutionary about Taylor's presentation beyond the fact that he's having students make video pieces. Hell, I attended multiple sessions on video composition at CCCC 2003 (either shooting actual video or using software like iMovie). See, for instance, Daniel Anderson's Kairos piece "Prosumer Approaches to New Media: Consumption and Production in Continuum." What I wanted from Taylor's presentation, and what I didn't get, was a discussion of new media (including video) compositions as composition. If we buy into Taylor's premise that we need to replace alphabetic textual production with video, then what are we, as compositionists and rhetoricians, doing with them, and what are they, as composition technologies, artifacts, and practices, doing in our composition classrooms?

Taylor's answer, at least what I got out of it, was that video engages and inspires students and alphabetic texts don't. This, at least the second half of it, I don't buy. Students aren't inspired or engaged by work that doesn't inspire or engage them. If your assignments aren't cutting it, try something else. We could argue that video is something else, but I could argue that poetry writing is something else instead. And so is playing with tinker toys, video games, or Duck Duck Goose. The answer needs to be more than students find video interesting and alphabetic text boring.

The real answer as to why video and new media should play a role in our composition courses is, of course, that they are composition technologies which are increasingly available. (Yes, not everyone owns the technology to produce new media, but 30 years ago typewritten papers were the expected norm and a large number of students did not own typewriters or have formal training in their use.) As we shift into a digital culture, to only teach print-based literacy is to teach not to the present or the future but to the past. On the other hand, the need for alphabetic literacy isn't going to go way just because the primacy of print is in decline. We should not confuse one for the other. Michigan Tech, with its required composition course which focuses on oral, written, and visual communication (including video) represents a much more realistic understanding of the 21st century communication practices.

So, what's my problem with Taylor's presentation? Why did it leave me asking WTF as many people stood in applause? Because Taylor isn't discussing the end of composition but the end of writing alphabetic text. Putting aside the suggestion that writing can be replaced by video in our classrooms, it is in this lack of distinction between writing print-based alphabetic essays and composition that I believe Taylor's presentation goes wrong.

I should note that Taylor's presentation was an hour long featured presentation and that there no other sessions to attend. He had time to delve into his topic, to really discuss it. Instead, he showed us a video composition that agued we should use video compositions because print's grasp on our culture is in decline.

The presentation itself was technically excellent with three different screens running at the same time. It was quite a show and many people responded to my criticisms with "it was entertaining." It was entertaining. In fact, drawing from Rich Rice's presentation earlier in the conference, Taylor's piece schmoozed us exceedingly well. But it was the kind of schmooze that sought to distract from the lack of substance.

What Taylor's presentation missed out on, I believe, was a discussion of new media as composition. If using video in composition courses was a repeated theme at CCCC more than two years ago, I expect something more from C&W, at least from a full-blown, hour long, featured session. At this stage of the game, what I want is not a discussion of video as the future but a discussion of the future video brings us. How does video composition extend, disrupt, interrogate, illuminate, and collaborate with other current composition practices, including alphabetic and print-based composition? What are the cognitive and noetic processes of video composition, and how are they similar to and different from the academic tradition of print? What are the material differences and what are the affordances and constraints that video and new media bring to the process? What are the rhetorical principles involved in video composition and what knowledge transfers? In short, what does video bring to the composition classroom (other than it engages students) and what do we as compositionists bring to the production and consumption of video?

These are the questions I want answered, or at least explored. These are the questions that skeptics in our field, in our departments, in our institutions, and in our communities, are going to want answered, are going to insist we answer, before new media composition becomes mainstream in FYC.

[15 July 2005 update: Minor proofreading edits made.]

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