5 for Execution, 8 for Reflection: Casual Composing with Visual Rhetoric

Disclaimer/Statement of Self-Awareness: The image post I discuss in this entry is not, in immediate hindsight, as funny or clever as it seemed at the time. Don’t judge. We’ve all been there.

So I’m finishing up my final edit/proofread of my forthcoming College English piece. Since CE is a legitimate publication (unlike my advisor’s inbox or this blog), this job required me to break out the full MLA Handbook. Luckily as a newly minted MLA member – thanks Vancouver! – I owe one of these, both hard copy and online access. All I needed to view the guidelines onscreen as I edit was a code from the back of the hard copy.

This code, amusingly, is printed under a thin layer of foil scratch ticket-style – a-like so: photo 1

This gave me the unique and somehow appropriate feeling of winning a guide to a formatting style that I had already paid $80 for – yay! It was the opposite of ironic – exactly what I expected it to be in every way. But it was also funny (at least to me), and so I snapped a picture for my brother, the only person I know who buys scratch tickets unironically.


I’d been looking for an excuse to buy a multi-photo framing app for Instagram, so 99 cents later I was deeply engaged in 1) experimenting with ways to convey the humor and sarcasm through image sharing and 2) wasting a lotta time. What job talk? With PicFrame as my composing tool, the choices at hand were about content and quantity. Which pictures sell the joke best – and how many?

I started with just two – the front cover of the guide and the scratched-off code in the back – but it felt flat. What I wanted, I realized, what I was imagining in my head, was a type of photo post I often see on Tumblr: a series of three or more pictures where at least two are progressive zoom-ins of the same shot. (Sort of like in this meme.) Since I wanted a single post suitable for both Instagram and FB, though, that format didn’t quite fit. But it sent me checking out four-image frame layouts that created more of a “journey” through the MLA Scratch-Off Experience of 2015:

photo 4photo 3 I liked the “journey” built by the four image layouts, but without more zooming power it still fell flat. And even without going for zooming effects, four images was too many for Instagram – too busy and cramped, at least for what I wanted.  It also created a dull impression, since very similar images inevitably ended up side by side. Very “meh.”

photo 2

The image on the right is what I ultimately posted to Instagram (and Twitter?): the page that started things off, the hard copy I was instructed to find, and the scratched-off result (with quarter for added lottery ticket effect). Not a stuck landing, still not doing what I wanted it to – but there’s only so much procrastination one can justify. That said, this experience opened up a lot of in-action reflection on what (and how much) goes into even the most casual visual/digital composing.

Even though I try to complete the NM/MM assignments I give my students alongside them (if not beforehand), it really is different when you’re working towards your own specific goal – your own vision, even. Sure, “vision” is a dramatic way to refer to an Instagram post. But it’s also a better way of explaining what was going on in my head as I tried and rejected those various options. I was going for a specific effect, I had a rhetorical style (strategy?) in mind, and I kept working at it til I found something that matched. Or more accurately, until I ran out of time and forced myself to settle. Goldilocks I am not: I can’t always get it just right. Especially when I’m composing with non-native rhetoric.

I’ve got two main takeaways here:

1) I want to do more digital and MM composing of my own, both casual and professional. It’s fun for its own sake, it’s got the extra meta-fun layer, and it is so damn satisfying when you figure out how to achieve even a small part of that vision, whatever it may be. The blogging I did all summer scratched this itch pretty well for awhile, and getting back to it is a good first step – but I want to ultimately create some kind of professional artifact, and/or one that blends personal and professional (as the blog does), that lets me experience new and reflective composing processes like this one.

2) Using digital and/or visual rhetoric to achieve a goal is  different than using only(/primarily) language. And it doesn’t take a serious or large-scale goal to experience that – it’s visible in even the simplest, most casual acts of writing. Which brings into focus something I’ve been groping towards in my dissertation stuff recently – the value of casual online composing for writing instruction.

…brings it more into focus anyhow. I’m not quite finished processing what I want to say about new (“new”) rhetorics and casual writing. But it feels like a sign that working to bring that writing, that casual and often painfully superficial-looking (to both us and to them), into the classroom does have potential value. That starting small might be worth a look. That starting by showing students the rhetorical choices they’re already navigating on a daily basis, with barely a thought, might facilitate a unique opportunity for transfer and conscious composing.

To be continued in my dissertation conclusion!


Micro-Fretting about Hyperlinks

I’ve been thinking a lot about hyperlinks lately – very 90s of me, I know. It started with the blogging, actually – as I’ve written these posts, I’ve realized how much I like hyperlinks as composing resources. I can cite without an unsightly in-text spelling out of the piece in question. I can include pictures that enhance the writing in some small way (usually visual jokes, but sometimes more substantial) that don’t warrant in-page inclusion or would be too disruptive if displayed within the post itself. I can make it easy to find more info on things I’m discussing directly, or even that I mention tangentially but which might be of interest to specific readers.

That’s one of the biggest – or at least the most obvious – draws: it makes things easier. Easier for me – throwing in a hyperlink is almost effortless in the WordPress visual editor (though it would be even easier if it didn’t automatically copy text as it’s highlighted, meaning you must copy the link after highlighting the relevant text). And easy for readers – the post is unbroken, and additional materials are a simple command-click away. It feels elegant, both formally and rhetorically. It opens choices for me as I write that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

It’s the choices piece of that I’ve been thinking about lately. Chiefly: when linking to outside material, how do I decide which words should become hypertext? This is a small decision, but one I find myself consciously considering all the time without any real sense of what ought to be guiding an effective choice. I want the power hyperlinks bring – but what’s the best way to present them within my writing?

John Slatin put his finger on this payoff/problem combo nearly 25 years ago – hypertext is great for pulling in lots of stuff you couldn’t include otherwise, but it’s a very imprecise tool for conveying the relationship between the linked material and the ideas of the text. Now, he’s talking more about how hypertext works in the complex, multi-path works that enraptured early digital media scholars than my very direct and relatively linear blog links. It’s pretty obvious what the linked picture in my post refers to regardless of what the exact link text is. But the exact text matters. At least I can’t overcome the feeling that it does.

Here’s an example, from my recent screencasting post, of what I’m talking about: in the second paragraph, I wanted to link a picture of a typical script for my screencast responses. The sentence where I wanted to include the link reads, “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.” What’s the most rhetorically effective and/or elegant hypertext version of that sentence?

  1. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  2. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  3. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”
  4. “After reading the draft a few times, I compose a little “script” on a Sticky note of the main points I’m going to make.”

The third option feels obviously weak to me because the link is so small – harder to click, less noticeable. Repeatedly one-word linking feels almost “twee” to me; it also provides the reader with less information about what exactly is being linked, making it more effort to process the place of the hypertext relative to the surrounding context (though in this case that’s not so much a problem). The fourth option is the most complete description of the linked material – a script composed by me using the Sticky Notes program. But it’s so long – its length suggests an importance for the linked picture that’s out of proportion with my intentions.

In Goldilocks terms, #2’s visual length feels “just right” in proportion to how important the image is to my rhetorical goals for the sentence. But I chose #1 instead – and this is where my ability to articulate the rhetorical choices at work breaks down most. Why did I include “I compose?”

Slatin says that rhetorical hypertext guides the reader towards “the pattern which connects” – the organizing idea or value of the text as a while. Perhaps this is why “I compose a little script” felt like the best rhetorical choice – it emphasizes that both the linked picture and the text as a whole are making a point about the act of screencasting. Now, I make a lot of other points in the post about it too – it’s not my tightest piece of writing. But looking back at the notes I used to put the post together, taken during the week or so I when I was working most actively with the method, it’s clear that what I was most intrigued by was the effect the act of constructing a screencast had on my practices as a tutor. Is this the “pattern which connects” everything in the final post? Not really, no. But it was, semi-consciously, the foremost idea in my mind at the time of writing.

So maybe that’s a starting point for me in making these decisions: choose the text that best contributes to your most important idea, or an idea that you’re trying to push forward with both your main text and your link. I was excited about the tutor’s role and practices in this process when I made this link; including “I compose” added emphasis to that idea without also adding undue bulk. And so it felt like the best – the “right” – option.

And as it’s virtually certain someone(s)’ written insightfully about HT much more recently than Slatin, someday when the thick of the market is behind me I can flesh out my decision-making with those as well. And then I will be a linking powerhouse, an unstoppable rhetorically integrated digital force.