words are the ultimate abstraction by robert watkins

In the late nineties, the band Refused (1998) created astir with their album, The Shape of Punk to Come. Their cry for change in the punk rock genre led to visible and audible changes. Similarly, in the essay, "Never Mind the Tagmemics, Where's the Sex Pistols?" Geoffrey Sirc (1997) argued that when punk was fresh, the composition studies world should have taken notice. As new genres emerged, too many compositionists continued with older methods, ignoring the potential teaching goldmine of punk.

Now, multimodality and visual rhetoric are emerging genres of which compositionists should take note. As composition studies progresses in the 21st cenury, we have the opportunity to embrace the future of composition by employing these genres in the classroom. Scott McCloud's (1993) book Understanding Comics is the perfect textual introduction to students new to the idea of arguing with more than just written words. McCloud's work brings to light many arguments that visual rhetoricians also make. By combining McCloud with more academic texts, the ability to teach what may be an unfamiliar (thus uncomfortable) topic is eased for both the instructors and students.

As composition teachers, we should be on the lookout in all areas of academia and popular culture to hook onto topics and movements to which our students can relate. Frequently, the underground is such a location, as are punk, McCloud, and the topic of multimodality.

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words are the ultimate abstraction
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words are the ultimate abstraction
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the story
In 2006, I was introduced to a flood of new pedagogical concepts. Visual rhetoric and multimedia excited me the most because it seemed ripe with possibilities. While reading the theoretical concepts of visual rhetoric, I was surprised to find that few of the texts took advantage of visual rhetoric strategies other than traditional essayistic forms. On the other hand, it was not surprising since publishing is often constrained in how information can be dissemenated, especially (it seems) in print-based modes such as journals and books (not to mention the potentially sticky copyright infringements of using images). Around the same time in 2006, I picked up the graphic, nonfiction text, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. His insight into all things visual astounded me. Here was a wonderful -- and accessible -- example of what visual rhetoric could potentially become for composition studies.

I set to work trying to create a project that would combine McCloud's insights into the theories of some of the contemporary visual rhetoricians. My initial goal was to create a comic interpretation of McCloud and visual rhetoric. However, I found that I had no skills in the world of comics and was greatly disappointed in myself. I was stumped on how to create a text to show (literally) what I meant.

While perusing through a visual rhetoric textbook, Picturing Texts, I came across a definition of "text" that helped me think about my composition goals differently. The authors, Lester Faigley, Diana George, Anna Palchik, and Cynthia Selfe (2004), said:

Words, images, and other graphics all function as acts of
communication. All are texts…we will use the word text to
describe all three—words, images, and other graphics—whether
they’re used in combination or alone. Photographs, novels,
poems, maps, brochures, advertisements, Web sites, telephone
directories, product labels: all are texts. Similarly, when we
talk about reading in this book, we have in mind an extended
sense of reading that includes words, images, and graphics.
We assume that a painting or photograph is a text that can be

There it was: a definition that opened realms of possibilities. I drew on the concepts of visual rhetoric and multimodality/multimedia to create what was essentially a traditional text. I could present the ideas of Scott McCloud, mixed with visual rhetoric theories, in a contemporary format that would do the topic justice, as well as provide an accessible entry for those foreign to the concepts of visual rhetoric and multimodality. Those new to such topics are my target audience.

This is a topic that will gain more and more momentum in upcoming years. Students are exposed to multimedia daily, and to deny the argumentative powers involved in these newer media is cheating students. Embracing these art forms could spark interest in otherwise dormant writers. As composition teachers, our job is to teach argument(s) through texts. It is essential that we recognize all facets and genres that texts reach. Embracing multimedia may be the key to awakening the next generation of compositionists.


references (text and video)

Faigley, Lester, George, Diana, Palchik, Anna, & Selfe, Cynthia. (2004). Picturing texts. New York: W.W. Norton.

Kenney, Keith. (2002). Building visual communication theory by borrowing from rhetoric. Journal of Visual Literacy, 22(1), 53-80.

McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink.

Sirc, Geoffrey. (1997). Never mind the tagmemics, where’s the Sex Pistols? College Composition and Communication, 48(1), 9-29.

image references (from video)

Earthx [Online Image]. (n.d.). Aminet.net. Retrieved December 5, 2006 from <http://de4.aminet.net/pix/astro/earthx.jpg>.

Geoffrey, Sirc [Online Image]. (n.d.). University of Minnesota General College. Retrieved December 5, 2006, from <http://www.gen.umn.edu/facultystaff/sirc/>

iPod Nano [Online Image] (n.d.). Maniac World. Retrieved December 5, 2006 from <http://www.maniacworld.com/game_consol_history/ipod.htm>.

McCloud, Scott . (n.d.) Scott McCloud [Online Image]. Columbia College Chicago. Retrieved December 5, 2006 from <http://web3.colum.edu/eventoftheday/archives/005923.php>.

Microsoft Word Clipart. (n.d.) Bd16757_.jpg [Clipart]. Retrieved December 5, 2006 from Microsoft Office.

Refused [Online Image]. (n.d.). Lycos. Retrieved December 5, 2006 from <http://membres.lycos.fr/punkjusquaubout/>

Slythefox. (May 1, 2005). Sex Pistols: "God Save the Queen." [Online Image]. Wikipediia. Retrieved December 5, 2006. from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Sex_Pistols.jpg>.

Staerkle, Marius. (May 18, 2004). Eruption [Online Image]. Retrieved December 6, 2006 from <http://www.volcanos.ms/images/Guatemala/2003_04_14_ Expedition_Fuego/fuego_exped7j-3-night-expedition-eruption-fuego.jpg>.

W. W. Norton & Company. (2005).Picturing Texts [Online Image]. W.W. Norton & Company: College Books. Retrieved December 5, 2006 from <http://www.wwnorton.com/college/titles/english/picture>

All other images from Understanding Comics and Robert and Maren Watkins.

song references (from video)

Bright Eyes. (January 25, 2005). Arc of Time. On Digital Ash in a Digital Urn [CD]. Omaha: Saddle Creek Records.

Mae. (March 29, 2005). Anything. On The Everglow [CD]. Seattle: Tooth and Nail Records.

Refused. (1998). The New Noise. On The Shape of Punk to Come [CD]. Tonteknik and Bomba Je late, Sweedem: Burning Heart Records. (1997).

Watkins, Robert. (2006). Viscous Air (CD). Logan: Second Star Studios.

Robert Watkins lives in Northern Utah with his wife Maren. He works as a graduate instructor at USU and she works as a High School English Teacher. They enjoy being outside, watching movies, playing video games, creating music, and discussing boring English topics.