As a dreaded “literature” scholar, I certainly ascribe a high value to the importance of words. I by no means, however, feel words need be the only and best way to communicate, especially given the capabilities afforded us by technology. It would be foolish to insist students only be textually literate — at least in the classroom. Yes, the written word is important and I still believe students should have solid verbal/textual skills. But the visual is everywhere. It’s not simply a peripheral component of the world around us — it plays a large part in shaping the world around us. If only for that reason, it’s our obligation to help students become literate visual readers as well as literal textual readers. In doing so, we give them the freedom to approach life with a more critical eye, to ask questions. I don’t think the basis of our philosophical/theoretical education in composition precludes this new understanding of what exactly is composition. It’s been there all along. It’s our duty to find ways to make it relevant to and reenergize it with a slightly different framework.


             The primary and most important aim of a rhetorical education is to prepare students for not only future classes, but to help them become informed, discriminating, critical members of society. Indeed, this is not only an aim, but an obligation. However, the purely textual rhetoric currently being taught in most American universities is shockingly behind the times in an age where students receive an immediate and never ending stream of visual information. Furthermore, these visual texts are more than pictures, singular and static. They’re in motion, dynamic, frenetic, ever changing. Because contemporary students have grown up immersed in a mode of passive reception of what the television and the internet convey as the truth, they’ve never questioned those truths. They’ve never had a reason. And no one has (at least successfully) problematized the world that surrounds them or nudged them out of complacency. The rhetoric classroom can and should do that. First, the academy has to move past its seeming disdain for media as a somehow lesser form of expression. This is the reality. Visual rhetoric is as textual as any other sort of rhetoric and just as valid.
          In the proper multimedia environment – one that would employ multifunction and interactive programs like Flash over the more easily manipulated hypertext – students would create visual rhetorical texts, mixing and manipulating a number of objects/components to effectively communicate a specific message. Aside from learning to use possibly new media and, of course, acquiring rhetorical skills, students begin to understand first-hand the extent to which the visuals to which they’re exposed are carefully crafted and controlled by the creator(s). Thus, the “veil of familiarity” is lifted. The experience leaves them with a more sophisticated understanding of how rhetoric is employed in culture and how they, thus, need to question who’s saying what and why they’re saying it. A successfully executed visual rhetoric class will yield the following results for students:
• They’ll understand that text – of any form – does not simply exist, but is created and manipulated.
• They’ll be able to perceive text and acquire agency as both audience and creator.

As teachers, we spend an extraordinary amount of time giving students feedback and comments on their papers, but we rarely think of how or why we do it – or if it even does any good. Are we really helping students or simply confusing the writing process and hindering their discursive development? A study of 35 first-year composition teachers (along with a computerized “Writer’s Workbench” to provide entirely disinterested and technical feedback for comparison) showed just how random and even angry instructor comments tend to be. It also highlighted a number of troubling feedback trends. Asked to provide feedback on the same first-draft papers, the teachers seemed to obscure rather than clarify the revision process.
Many instructors made comments on both content and grammar, confusing the student as to the focus of the revision. Grammar corrections should not be made on first drafts. Not only does it reinforce their perception that they simply need to go in and “fix” whatever the teacher pointed out, they interpret the surface-level markings to mean that the content and style of their paper is fine and, aside from some punctuation and spelling errors, they’ve finished the paper to completion. Furthermore, students should simply not be fixating on grammar at this stage of the drafting process.
Students were also given conflicting feedback about condensing and expanding their work. in the same paragraph, one of the teachers informed the student they needed to further research and develop an idea and then pointed out his/her wordiness. Neither suggestion/comment is given with any indication of which is the higher order concern. Thus, the students left to wonder whether to cut or add. In other areas, instructors failed to clarify their statements, writing vague statements like, “Think about your reader,” but not explaining what exactly is at issue. This helps no one.
Teachers should always strive to locate and discuss rhetorical and conceptual problems in students’ drafts – and help their students learn to find those problems for themselves. Additionally, it’s vital that there be harmony between in-class instruction and paper comments. Students need to understand that the revision process is not a matter of going point by point through the instructor’s comments and correcting them. It is a process of reinvention.

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) pedagogy is over 25 years old, dating back to open admissions crisis of the seventies. Of primary concern for WAC proponents is the failure of composition classes to teach students writing skills that adequately translate to other academic discourses. Though instructors may be urging students to compose in their “authentic voice,” that voice and the sort of expressive writing that accompanies it are not appropriate for, say, a course in the sciences. In reaction to this discursive disconnect, WAC pedagogy advocates for writing instruction that provides students with the kind of overarching skills that can be applied in any discipline – critical thinking, problem solving, and effective communication. WAC theory encompasses two main schools of thought, though they are not mutually exclusive or at odds.
Writing to learn is, above all things, student centered and reflective. This strategy, born of the Learning Across the Curriculum movement, helps students develop expressive skills, process complex and/or new ideas, and make sense of the language with which they’re working. This can take many forms – quick writes, focused free writes, and journals among them. These writings should not be graded, as the purpose of the exercises is to create a discursive environment in which students feel safe and comfortable expressing themselves in any way that best suits their needs.
Writing to communicate, sometimes referred to as Writing in the Disciplines (WID), is reader based and asks students to learn and invoke formal discourse language. As such, students are expected to create drafts, revise, tighten, and polish their work. In this light, the teacher-student relationship is much like the master-apprentice dynamic. While composition teachers can fulfill their end of the bargain by teaching their students discourse analysis, it falls to the instructors in specific disciplines to serve as “masters” of their respective fields. This requires from teachers a conscious recognition of the differences and gaps between various discourses and an active classroom pedagogy to help bridge those divides. This is also called genre theory.