Watching before Writing: Integrating Visual and Verbal Literacy in the Composition Classroom

Image of a roll of filmBy Charles Fox (cfox4@gsu.edu)

In his essay, “How to Teach Film Adaptations, and Why,” Thomas Leitch argues for restructuring English departments in a way that more accurately reflects our new vision of that which is literary. Whereas in a traditional English department—one that is wholly separate from communication, philosophy, or art—most courses focus primarily on the interpretation and analysis of texts in isolation, Leitch argues that courses in literary studies would expand the possibilities of interpretative critiques. Moreover, recent theories in filmic adaptation contend that every text is adaptable; therefore, by specifically examining the potentiality of the written text to be adapted, students are more likely to find ways to move from “passive literacy—being uncritical consumers of the texts they face—to active literacy—being able to not only follow texts word by word and point by point but to engage them critically by producing powerful texts themselves” (9-10). Although Leitch’s call for the establishment of a Department of Literary Studies—which mixes rhetoric, composition, and literature with film studies, aesthetics, and cultural criticism—may be an overly ambitious goal met with resistance from entrenched faculty who see new technologies as a dilution of their status as keepers of the canon and from senior administrators who worry that such restructuring would be a costly goose chase after a pedagogical fad, perhaps a more practical first step would be for willing faculty to use literary-to-filmic adaptations in the first year composition (FYC) course to discuss issues of audience reception and rhetorical stance, detail and description, and comparative analysis. Integrating an analysis of moving images in FYC can be an effective method for teaching students how to make their writing more viscerally compelling, intellectually provocative, and stylistically engaging.

In this essay, I argue that we are in a unique historical position that compels us as writing instructors to examine the fusion of verbal and visual literacies, and in so doing we are better able to prepare our students for analyzing and understanding multiple literacies. I will present evidence from media studies, composition, and pedagogy theorists to support my claim that this integration is an effective and engaging method. Then, after clarifying why this is an effective method for teaching students to write well, I will describe how one implements the study of visual moving images in a typical first year composition course.  As instructors of first year composition, it is important that we know where our students are, be willing to meet them there, and help them get where they need to be.

First year college students arrive on our campuses at a historical nexus of new media. They are exposed to a wide range of information presented in increasingly diverse media forms, and they are expected to know how to interpret them all. As new media technologies advance exponentially, these students have higher rates of proficiency in using digital information and spend increasingly more time accessing internet and social media sites (Arum and Roska, 96-97).  Even though these students come to college having demonstrated reading and writing competencies in their high school coursework and standardized tests, they are more likely to have recently seen a movie than to have finished reading a book, to have watched a clip from The Daily Show than read an article from The Nation, or to post a YouTube video than write a letter to a friend. Our students have grown up in an age wherein the primary method of communicating and expressing ideas has shifted away from the written word toward the visual image. As Stephen Mitchell, professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at New York University describes it in the conclusion to his book, The Fall of the Word, the Rise of the Image, “we now live in an age when it appears as if we are surrendering possession of our books. They are disappearing from our homes. Their place in front of our eyes is being usurped by the moving image” (206).

It is true. Our students are inundated by visual media, but that does not mean they can clearly articulate the intended meaning underlying those visual texts. Furthermore, most students realize that their future professional success requires that they know how to write effectively. Verbal literacy, which includes written as well as spoken language, may no longer be our predominant form of communication, but it is still the only form which allows for a dialogical exchange of ideas. Therefore, our students are caught in a communication paradox—they know that reading is important, but would rather watch the movie version.  So, to better prepare them to succeed in a world that values both visual and verbal literacies, we should teach students to process information in both.  Just as college students a generation ago refined their critical thinking skills through written analysis of a verbal text, so, too, must our current students learn how to analyze and respond to the meaning underlying visual images presented in media texts.

Compared to earlier audiences, today’s students are sophisticated viewers of moving images. They are more likely to accept jarring quick-cuts (á la MTV), disjointed narrative structures (Memento), and CGI-manipulations of basic physics (The Matrix) as commonplace. Whereas an older viewer may see these visual techniques as chaotic, current students see this chaos as expressions of a visual language they have known most of their lives. Complicating this issue further, despite the availability of video recording and editing tools, visual language is almost always one-sided. For now, viewers who want to engage in a dialogic conversation with the text must do so in writing.

In her highly influential book on teaching composition, The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models and Maxims for Writing Teachers, Ann E. Berthoff re-defines the writing process as a continuum of “making meaning.” She writes:

Meanings don’t just happen: we make them; we find and form them. In that sense, all writing courses are creative writing courses. Learning to write is learning to do deliberately and methodically with words on the page what we do all the time with language. Meanings don’t come out of air; we make them out of a chaos of images, half-truths, remembrances, syntactic fragments, from the mysterious and unformed.  (294)

Here, Berthoff explains the process of writing as a revision of spoken language. This articulates a problem that many FYC students face when they try to write the way they speak. These students produce essays that are confusing, disorganized, and lacking depth.

Furthermore, the proliferation of and easy access to information, coupled with changing attitudes about the use of intellectual property among some current composition theorists, have resulted in student essays that resemble cut-and-paste (and often unintentionally plagiarized) collage. Marcus Boon, who favors free and open use, describes the internet thus: “What appears to be on offer on the Internet, what fuels its imaginal space, is the utopia of an infinite amount of stuff, material or not, all to be had for the sharing, downloading, and enjoying. For free” (42).  Instead of formulating an original dialogue with another’s works, students readily agree with the “free stuff ” without question and present it as their own. Questions about fair use of intellectual property are occurring more frequently in the FYC course, and instructors are answering these questions in decidedly punitive ways.

There are legitimate applications of “intellectual sampling” when they encourage students to integrate their original thoughts with those of published writers; however, FYC students are frankly underprepared for this kind of written engagement. Perhaps the inability to respond can be traced back to their preference for visual images. Again, the limitation of visual language is that it is monologuistic. The filmmaker or videographer presents a series of visual moving images, and, even if we are able to make meaning from those images, we are incapable of producing a competent video response.  I believe that students want to engage in a dialogue with difficult material, they want to respond to the meaning they have discovered among the visual chaos, but they don’t know how. We must meet them where they are, first by accepting that they prefer visual images to written texts and then by giving them the tools for adapting into words the meaning they have found in the image.

Even though moving images, i.e. film and video, are relatively young communication technologies, visual literacy is still considered a second-class literacy. Instructors of writing and literature especially lament the fact that students prefer movies more than novels, and so we often tend to respond to our students’ preference by devaluing their choice. This defensive posturing is particularly pernicious when English faculty discuss literary-to-film adaptations. I have heard otherwise perfectly reasonable and intelligent colleagues resort to simplistic generalizations in order justify their claims—“Everyone knows that the movie is never as good as the book” or “It’s impossible for a film to be as complex as a novel.” In his essay “It Wasn’t Like That in the Book…”, Brian McFarlane points out how when discussing film adaptations of literary works, academics from English departments almost always deride the film as inferior, and only “grudgingly conced[e] what [the] film may have achieved” (5-6). This is literary elitism, fostered by entrenched Luddites clinging to what they fear is a dying technology—i.e. books. Mitchell Stephens, writing about the first written languages and the invention of the printing press, confirms how difficult it was for these technologies to become widely accepted. He states:

Generations stumble and struggle—usually against conventional wisdom—to divine how best to exploit the strength of that new form [of communication]. And it is when a medium is young and its user are stumbling that that medium is most vulnerable to attack. (44)

So do we give in? Do we accept our students’ waning interest in written texts and show films instead of assigning readings? Of course not. We establish a common space in which we can discuss visual images through written words. We find ways to integrate our verbal and visual literacies.

Although there are many specialized terms and theories associated with film studies, once an English instructor realizes that the study of film and the study of literature share many common objectives, the fears they may have about using film can be eased. As Brian McFarlane explains:

Our training in literature equips us to read complexity and subtlety in novels.…We are trained to do more than read for “mere” narrative …[and] we have been taught to be attentive to matters like how point of view is created…how character is revealed by and precipitates action, how thematic concerns are articulated through character and action in collaboration, how to read—in more modern terminology—sometimes conflicting discourses of, say, gender and class. (5)

Further evidence for using film to help students better understand verbal language comes from Andrew Goodwyn who counters the argument that students must be verbally literate before they can attempt to respond to visual language. Goodwyn would likely agree that this claim has been discredited by most composition theorists who contend that students can’t wait until they know how to write before writing: Learning occurs in the process not in the final product. Moreover, Goodwyn says:

[I]n terms of what English offers, the study of narrative film or television fiction make obvious and easy starting points.…And that is all they are: starting points.…The key point is that English is concerned with all forms of textuality, including the spoken and now the visual text, and with our response to, and understanding of, text and the creation of texts of our own.  (20-21)

Using moving images in the first year composition course is an easy place to meet students where they are, and a good place to begin taking them where they need to be.

In his 2005 essay, “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century,” Richard Fulkerson predicts how many of the current competing pedagogical theories of FYC will change, and in these predictions he delineates key elements for an effective  pedagogical theory for a first year composition course. He formulates these elements as four questions for instructors to consider when clarifying their course objectives: The axiological question—what do we want students to achieve? The procedural question—how should students create and what do the products they create look like? The pedagogical question—what classroom procedures allow students the best opportunity to learn? And the epistemological question—what is knowledge?  What follows are my answers to each question and then a brief explanation of assignments exemplifying my claim that film is an effective tool for improving student writing in first year composition courses.

The Axiological Question: What Do We Want Students to Achieve?

This is a question that we instructors should be asking ourselves every time we prepare a syllabus, choose our texts, prepare classroom lectures and assignments, walk into the classroom, and grade a paper. However, for most of us the course objectives are predetermined by our institution as common course objectives or expected educational outcomes. These objectives are specific and revised regularly. For my classes, however, I have a few general objectives I hope FYC student writers are able to achieve. After one semester, for most students it is a serious accomplishment when they have better mastery of word choice, style, voice, and intensity.

In order to help students achieve these objectives, I assign out-of-class readings that are supplemented with in-class discussion of film clips that demonstrate ways to engage with the topic. For example, when discussing word choice and voice, I assign a group of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s narrative passages from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men as part of the homework reading. Then the next class we watch the opening scenes from the Coen brothers’ 2007 film and discuss why the directors chose to compress and combine the passages, and how the text and tone of Sheriff Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) voiceover contrasts with and/or is reinforced by the opening visual images of west Texas prairie. When students begin to understand why the Coen brothers structured their opening to emphasize the film’s tone and mood, and to foreshadow the thematic concerns of the film, they are better equipped to make similar choices in their own writing.

The Procedural Question: How Should Students Create and What Do the Products They Create Look Like?

Whereas the axiological question helps us define our course objectives, the procedural question requires us to consider those assignments that help meet those objectives. The individual assignments should foster a creative atmosphere that allows students to demonstrate mastery of topics in a variety of ways. The most commonly held assertion among the various theories of composition studies is that writing is a process. Although it is difficult to accurately assess a process, the final product—whether it be an expository paper, argumentative essay, or research paper—should reflect those skills refined in the process. The final essay should be: clear and easy to read; engage an interesting topic with confidence; and display a distinctive, yet accessible style.

One assignment that creates a final product that requires students to effectively demonstrate their analytical skills and that allows students an opportunity to engage a film in a more complex and discursive way is an expository comparison-contrast essay of a literary-to-film adaptation. Students may choose from a list I provide of short stories that have been adapted, or they may choose one on their own. Most importantly, I ask them to consider not only what changes were made from one text to the other, but also why the adapter made those choices. Most students already have experience with this type of essay, so they are able to focus their attention on presenting clear thoughtful prose. Moreover, because they are required to examine why a filmmaker has chosen to revise the source text, their assertions are more confident and their claims are more substantial. Students are often surprised by the length of the analysis they are capable of producing, and the quality of their writing in the essays often tends to be their best.

The Pedagogical Question: What Classroom Procedures Allow Students the Best Opportunity to Learn?

 Lecturing in a FYC course can be tiresome and counterproductive for several reasons. Just as good writing “shows more and tells less,” class time spent explaining how to write without actually writing is boring. Instead, an instructor should be willing to incorporate several more effective methods for generating active student learning. Low-stakes writing exercises, problem-based or case studies assignments, and collaborative learning are all effective methods in the FYC course.

Collaborative learning through small group work and peer reviews are especially helpful in composition classroom because they encourage participants to value each other’s opinions and reinforce students’ previous knowledge. As the group works to solve a problem together, the participants must integrate the skills and knowledge of each member to find the answer.

A recent movement in adaptation theory is towards intertextual readings of the adapted works; a film need not be the final adaptation of a narrative. Thomas Leitch, in an explanation that traces narrative intertextuality from Mikhail Bakhtin through Roland Barthes, calls for readers (and writers) to consider the primary lesson of adaptation studies—“that texts remain alive only to the extent that they can be rewritten and that to experience a text in all its power requires each reader to rewrite it” (Discontents, 12).  By rewriting the text, and then sharing it within a small group, FYC students are not only keeping the text alive, they are truly engaging in dialogic conversation with that text.

An example of how a small group exercise using a film clip to strengthen their writing skills is one that requires students to observe and report sensory details from the opening scene of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 filmic adaptation of P.D. James’s novel, Children of Men. This is a low-stakes exercise, one of ten given throughout the semester, worth a maximum of ten points towards their participation grade. We start by watching the opening scene (approximately two minutes). While the scene plays students should note as many background details as possible. In recording the details, I encourage them to put themselves in the scene and imagine using all their senses to accumulate as much information as possible. Then each student writes a brief description (about 300 words) of the scene. After about ten minutes of writing, the students break into four or five groups to compare each other’s narratives. The group that has the most details earns ten points; the next group nine points; the next eight, etc.  Instead of telling students how effective writing utilizes specific sensory details, this exercise requires students to witness a shocking scene for themselves, and then testify about that event.

The Epistemological Question: How Is Knowledge Created and What Counts for Knowledge?

The culminating work for most FYC courses is the research essay. Students are usually required to research a controversial topic, integrate source materials into their analysis of the topic, and present the paper in standard format. Theoretically, this assignment assesses the student’s ability to use all her academic research and writing skills to create a paper that reflects her understanding of a complex issue. Because these papers are formal academic exercises to prepare students for the rigors of upper-division coursework, they are often over-filled with quotes from authorities on the subject, raw data without sufficient context, and generally lacking reflection on how this topic affects the writer. In other words, because the students don’t see themselves as capable of making a contribution to the discussion, they rely on other to do it for them. As a way of encouraging students to make the paper more interesting for themselves (and for me), I require them to write about a topic that has been examined in a documentary film.

I provide a list of about a dozen topics with two or three corresponding documentaries for each. In addition to quoting from at least four other sources, students must watch the film and cite it in their final paper no more than twice.  The paper is not an analysis of the film, but a thoughtful examination of the topic or issue presented in it. Students may disagree with the filmmaker’s position and should verify the filmmaker’s claims and sources.  Because many of the documentaries are narrated by the filmmaker (or a popular celebrity), this assignment also allows the student to consider how personal biases can skew our perspective when constructing an argument, and how a filmmaker’s “voice” affects an audience’s reception.

First year composition instructors are in a difficult position. We know that good writing allows one to express original ideas, to articulate artful arguments, and to participate in larger conversations, but our students find the moving visual image more interesting than the fixed written word. They prefer watching over writing. The more vigorously we argue for an appreciation of the imaginative possibilities that written texts can provoke, the more we sound defensive and apologetic for the limitations of a mono-track medium in a multi-track world.

Some FYC instructors see this cultural preference as indicative of student laziness—the first sign of the inevitable demise of a literate civilization. These instructors retreat—filling class time with sentences diagrams, grammar exercises, and long lectures about the questionable reliability of internet sources.  Not only are their students resistant and bored, but the best these instructors can hope for are grammatically clean, well-organized, and properly formatted essays. And not much more than that. Our objective should be to help students develop writing that goes beyond minimal competence, and to do this we must be willing to adapt to the world in which our students live.

One of the most compelling current debates among composition theorists is the use of new media for engaging student writers. Integrating film and other new visual texts in English courses is becoming more widely accepted as younger professionals enter the field, themselves literate in multiple media.  In this essay I argue that English instructors are well suited for using film, especially adaptations of written works, to engage students in critical thinking and writing. Students love talking about films, and they are often more visually literate than they realize. Using films in FYC motivates students in two ways: it establishes a common space for students and instructors to parse meaning out of the chaos of images, and it allows students through the corresponding writing assignments to articulate their responses to the visual text.  Our objective in first year composition is to teach students how to respond critically about the world in which they live; real learning happens when students are given the chance to actively participate in that discussion.

 

Works Cited

Arum, Richard and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. “From the Making of Meaning.” Teaching Composition: Background Readings, 3rd ed. Johnson, T.R. ed. Boston, New York: Bedford St. Martin, 2008. Print.

Boon, Marcus. In Praise of Copying. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.

 Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 56, No. 4. (June, 2005), 654-687. JSTOR. Web. 29 Sept. 2009.

Goodwyn, Andrew. English Teaching and the Moving Image. London & New York: Routledge Falmer, 2004. Print.

Leitch, Thomas. Film Adaptations & Its Discontents: From Gone With the Wind to the Passion of the Christ. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Print.

Leitch, Thomas. “How to Teach Film Adaptations, and Why.” The Pedagogy of Adaptation. Dennis Cutchins, Laurence Raw and James M. Welsh, eds. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2010. Print.

McFarlane, Brian. “It Wasn’t Like That in the Book…” The Literature/Film Reader: Issues of Adaptation James M. Welsh and Peter Lev, eds. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2007. Print.

Stephens, Mitchell. The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

One Comment

on “Watching before Writing: Integrating Visual and Verbal Literacy in the Composition Classroom
One Comment on “Watching before Writing: Integrating Visual and Verbal Literacy in the Composition Classroom
  1. Charles,
    I agree that too often folks dismiss the importance of meeting students where they are as some sort of lowering of standards. You are correct to point out the multi-media is engrained in the culture of this demographic cohort. I have used video projects with three column scripts (requiring text, images and sourcing) as an alternative to a formal term paper with good luck. There are the pitfalls you mention about sourcing but they are barriers that can be managed with proper intervention early in the project. I had not thought about adaption, and that does bring some interesting musing to mind:-). Thank you for sharing your insights and the very detailed examples of classroom assessments. They will provide inspiration across the curriculum!

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