Monday, June 26, 2017

All Knowledge Is Subjective

"What we do in the classroom in any given moment depends on what we think we are supposed to be doing- what the moment calls for and what seems to be the best way to meet that call. We might say, in other words, that how one plays the game depends on what game one thinks one is playing."
(First-Year Composition, 279)


I came across this quote last semester during Lauren's class, "The Teaching of Composition," and while I originally interpreted it specifically in relation to writing, I believe that this idea signifies the way in which we should approach all possible modes of communication. The quote is particularly applicable to the ideas that Drecker discusses in her chapter, "Interpreting Visualization." In this chapter, she discusses the origins of different visual representations over time, and through this focus, she asks us to consider the different factors which shape, influence, and restrict each mode of representation. Based on these rhetorical elements, she points to the subjectivity of any given "truth." She emphasizes this idea through her explanation of a "humanistic approach” to knowledge, an approach that is "centered in the experiential, subjective conditions of interpretation." (Drecker, 130) For example, she explains that while a visual comparison between males and females may seem like a basic enough representation, even the term "gender" is subjective since there are alternative views to what "gender" actually represents in the contemporary world. Similarly, Drecker states that "The link between statistical tables and bureaucratic administration is historical as well as cultural." (Drecker, 91) With this in mind, when interpreting statistical tables, the viewer must consider how the information displayed may be specifically interpreted through this bureaucratic viewpoint, and also, what interpretive factors may have been overlooked because of this particular lens. Such “innocent” representational factors often oversimplify the complexities within data (which is often done for specific purposes), and in turn, this simplification influences the way in which we perceive the information provided. Through this analysis, Drecker emphasizes a belief that all data representations must be chosen based on the rhetorical contexts from which they are created. Therefore, in order to understand “the game one thinks one is playing,” we must consider what the rules are, why the rules exist, how these rules co-exist, and how to make decisions based on these observations.


Similarly, the article by Gunther Kress highlights such complexities, but his analysis has a specific focus on the changes caused by the digital world. In his explanation, while the author once navigated the reader through the information provided in his text, in a digital world, it is instead the job of the reader to select information “by individuals to be transformed by them into knowledge to solve a problem in their life-world.” (Kress, 10) Before technology, information was mainly portrayed through words (dependent on time and a chronological display of information), but in the digital world, we rely more heavily on visual frameworks (which organize through use of space, combining all information into a single, non-sequential depiction). While Kress’ explanation helps to differentiate many interpretive differences in word-based versus visual representation, I do not completely agree with his analysis. He claims, “on the one hand there is a finite stock of words- vague, general, nearly empty of meaning; on the other hand there is an infinitely large potential of depictions- precise, specific, and full of meaning.” (Kress, 15-16) While I agree that yes, language is subjective, I do not believe that visual interpretations are necessarily more precise- especially since Drecker emphasizes the interpretive factors involved in such representations. While the freedom of reader navigation is beneficial in many ways, I also believe that the freedoms of individual interpretation may inevitably lead to greater confusion, not less. Kress emphasizes the rhetorical aspects of visual communication in relation to writing, but unlike him, I believe that both modes are applicable to his visual-based analysis. He claims, “each occasion of representation and communication now becomes one in which the issue of my relation to my audience has to be newly considered and settled on.” (Kress, 24) As we had discussed in class, the connections created by technology allow for more varied, specialized expertise and a more efficient global exchange of information. Therefore, whether we are using written or visual data, the rhetorical factors in both instances must always be assessed and taught in relation to the complexities of the modern world.

This discussion of interpretive knowledge highlights some key challenges and questions that we as teachers must consider in the 21st century. Yes, we need to teach our students how to properly assess and navigate across the digital void, but how? To what extent should we emphasize the rhetorical analysis of information, and should we focus moreso on the rhetorics within writing or within multimodal/visual interpretation? How often should we include multimodality in our assignments?  How much actual writing should be done throughout such assignments? What navigational strategies will students need in the future, and how can we help them become adaptive learners in this changing digital world? How can we ensure that students are thinking critically about the rhetorical factors embedded into any given set of data? How can we efficiently combine the basic rhetorical contexts of writing with the more complex modes of communication within a single classroom? Finally, how can we ourselves efficiently analyze the data in our field with consideration to each individual context? While I have indeed taken time in the past to consider the complexity of rhetoric in relation to the teaching of communication (mainly written communication), this week’s assigned readings offer a  thorough analysis which widened the scope of my understanding- and also unfortunately caused me to experience an existential crisis regarding the meaning of “truth” in the postmodern world. While I have always acknowledged/incorporated the complexities of language and communication into my teaching, I once again find myself with more questions than answers. Yes, it is clear that we need to incorporate these new digital and multimodal communicative tools, but how can we do so in an efficient, all-inclusive way that simultaneously aligns with the basic communicative standards of our composition classrooms?

17 comments:

  1. Amanda,

    Thank you for connecting these two readings to the notion of rhetorical situation that we learned about in the Teaching of Composition. Expressing oneself in both speech/writing and visual modes utilize knowledge of rhetorical situations involving audience, purpose, and context. Kress maintains that the speaker has much more agency in writing since entrypoint and departure point of the text are fixed by the author (11). Graphic images, on the other hand, have less structure and contain multiple ways that audience can enter into and depart from a text, giving the audience much more agency. As a result, the author has less control over responding to a certain rhetorical situation in a graphic text since the audience has a stronger role in making meaning from the text.

    Kress titles his article “Gains and Losses,” but I believe he sees many more gains than losses. For example he asserts that depiction has the capability to “show” whereas speech and writing can only “tell” (16). He ends the article with a series of questions including: “Can I say that depiction is a better means of dealing with much in the world than writing or speech could be?” (21). I believe he does think that depiction is preferable to speech and writing since he doesn’t account for any major losses in expressing knowledge in a graphic mode. Drucker, on the other hand, seems to account for many losses, specifically the ways that graphic representations oversimplify information. For example, she calls maps three-dimensional to two-dimensional “analogies” (82). She mentions that “demographics with complex human factors become starkly simplified and reduced graphic statements that conceal as much as they reveal” (89). She also points out that flow charts “make it easy to impose the will of an administered culture on the complexities of human behavior” (Drucker 94). Overall, Drucker believes that graphics take the human dimension out of the information they are trying to represent. She ends the chapter by stating, “We have a very long way to go in creating graphical expressions that serve humanistic interpretation” (137). There seems to be more losses than gains for Drucker until this humanistic expression in graphic form can be achieved.

    Although graphics can be convenient, I do think that they leave too much interpretation to the viewer and can loose some of the intended expression. For instance, we are prefacing our remixes with text since the graphics we are presenting may not accurately represent our complex written arguments. As far as composition instruction, I think allowing students to mix text and graphics is the best approach. In this way they can “show” with graphics while reclaiming some of the agency over the text. Even in Jody Shipka’s unconventional approach, she has students produce written text throughout the compositing process and in the reflection so they can claim and explain their rhetorical choices. Overall, I think the loss of agency when we change modes is a valuable lesson for students, especially when it comes to expressing themselves in graphic forms online.

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  2. What a fantastic post, Amanda! I'm very happy to see you bring Drucker and Kress into conversation with each other. And as you and Erin have pointed out, they express differing views about the meaning-making process involved in visual design elements. While I think Kress oversimplifies the distinctions between writing and image and the page and the screen, I do think he rightly calls for greater attention to rhetoric or audience within multimodal spaces. It's not that printers have not considered audience in the past, but their positioning of the audience has been much more authoritarian, especially in the late age of print (i.e. the mass produced, cheaply printed copy). It's no accident, I think, that Drucker draws on medieval examples to demonstrate more humanistic models of visualization. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, the audience played a large role in the writing and shaping of the text, often because the books were oriented toward "reading design." It's my belief that we as writing teachers need to teach "design" as an element of our instruction, one that has been largely relegated to standard MLA formats. We need to think about ways to teach our students to reach their audiences, considering the ways that multiple modes (sound, image, text) might reach them in ways that one mode might not.

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    4. (third times the charm) Alex, I completely agree. While my post critiqued Kress's oversimplification of the written word, I do believe that these new forms of multi-modality in the digital world bring about further complexities that would not otherwise be considered based on previous written texts...and I probably should have clarified this in my post so i'm glad you brought it up. I do believe, however, that whether we are analyzing written, visual, or multi-modal texts, "the rhetorical factors in [all] instances must always be assessed and taught in relation to the complexities of the modern world," and so whether we are observing a written, visual, or multi-modal representation, these ideas are all more subjective due to the modern rhetorical factors involved.

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  3. Amanda, what I most appreciated from your post was when you said, “the viewer must consider how the information displayed may be specifically interpreted through this bureaucratic viewpoint, and also, what interpretative factors may have been overlooked because of this particular lens.” In my class, towards the beginning of the year, I have my students fill out a cultural lens diagram. Just as it sounds, this asks students to draw a number of circles, starting from the center and getting closer and closer to the edge of the paper. Each circle is accompanied by a personal identification question. These questions range from what race do you identify as, religion, social class, etc. The students are to answer each of the questions, filling in each of the circles as they go, and then to sit back and look at the diagram as a whole. I then tell them that these are their cultural lenses. These are the parameters that may guide many of their interpretations and understandings when reading literature, or really looking at any text. I then explain that having a cultural lens isn’t a bad thing, but making sure to attempt to look outside of your own lens is important when trying to better understand all sides to a text, argument, or opinion.

    Reading Drecker’s chapter, I couldn’t help but remember this assignment. It is important for students to realize that even though they think they may be approaching a text objectively, away from their prior knowledge, experience, or background, separating themselves from their cultural lenses is much more difficult than they realize. I believe that the first step to Drecker’s belief that “all data representations must be chosen based on the rhetorical contexts from which they are created”, at least in the classroom, is educating students to step away, or attempt to, from their cultural lenses in hopes of interpreting the data in the rhetorical context from which it was created.

    In the case of Kress’ ideas on the subjective status of language, I agree with you that individual interpretations may lead to a larger issue of confusion. This is exactly why I go over specific scenes and sections of texts with my students. Although I may assign an entire chapter to read, I will choose important or meaningful parts of the reading to cover in class, both to emphasize the importance of that particular scene and to clarify any miscommunications. Although I think that interpretation of language can and should be subjective, I also believe that as a group, we have to make sure we are all on the same page (no pun intended) before delving into a deeper interpretation.

    On the other hand, I tell my students in their papers to write about any claim they want, no matter how bizarre, as long as they have the evidence from the text to back that claim. I’m wondering at what point the subjectivity of language becomes less of a risk for confusion and more of a motivation to interpret the text in a new way.

    In terms of preparing our students for the future, we are just one department. In order for the students to fully benefit and learn digital literacy and writing, I think that this needs to be a combined effort from all content areas, not just English. I think that a lot of the emphasis for developing digital skills is placed on the shoulders of the English department. This may be a biased claim, but I think that these expectations of including digital experiences and opportunities for students should be utilized by all departments within a school. Students will view it more as a norm and be more receptive to the new technologies and skills associated with it.

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  4. I started reading Drucker and Kress with a migraine and it's only gotten worse now that I'm done! Thinking about these texts separately is challenging enough; thinking about them in conversation leads me to frustration (though I can certainly see the connections). For Drucker, the scientific orientation to visualization hides the idea that observation is actually constructed. I agree with Drucker that all knowledge is constructed and subjective and it's an important lesson that students aren't asked to ponder enough or at all. I applaud Drucker's conclusion that graphical expressions must incorporate a humanistic worldview if we are to challenge the taken for granted "truth" of an observer-independent objectivity.

    In terms of Kress, I disagree with the argument that graphics allow for more meaningful participation/interpretation by the audience. That notion goes against my fundamental belief about what reading literature entails -- an interaction between the reader and the text that requires meaning making. The interaction is unique for each reader based on the differing experiences readers bring to the text. This doesn't mean that texts are wide open for interpretation and evidence is unimportant, but I don't see the reading process as fixed and narrow as Kress does. I agree with Kress that the book has fewer entry points than the screen, but ordering of ideas is not the only way that audiences participate in meaning making. I'm not sure of the value of comparing the word and the image the way Kress does. Or perhaps I just don't agree with the conclusion. I see value in reflecting on multi-modal texts, the ways images and text can offer opportunities for meaning-making and the ways one might be better for one rhetorical situation or audience over another.

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  5. Amanda,

    At the end of your post you talk about how this week's reading forced you to really think about the meaning of truth in the world we live in. I, too, had this issue, specifically when reading the Drucker chapter. I always grapple with the idea that time is this social construct and that we live our lives according to these grids. Drucker made me think about this idea on a whole new and deeper level. One idea that I found particularly striking was when speaking of diagrammatic schemes (such as a calendar) she says, "They make the world by structuring our experience of it" (74). I had never before considered the powerful influence of images and visual representations and how they make actual work in creating the world we live in. However, after continuing on in the chapter, I began to see that most of our world and how we view the world is constructed through these visualizations.

    When speaking about Kress's argument, you critique his idea about the difference in interpretation between words and visuals. I also found myself questioning this idea. The first issue I took with it is the idea that words are empty of meaning. I don't necessarily find this to be true. I think words, just like images have both intended meaning (provided by the creator) and interpreted meaning (provided by the reader/viewer). Furthermore, he claims that with image, "that which I wish to depict I can depict...they [depictions] are always specific." This is something I completely disagree with. Just likes words, there is going to be an intended meaning and an interpreted meaning. Just because the author chooses to depict something in a certain way, does not mean that it is what the viewer will actually see.

    At the end of your post, you tie the readings into education and classroom use. As for your question about multimodality, I would argue that you should use it whenever possible. Though all students benefit from learning and completing tasks in many different modes, the students that will benefit most from it are students with specific learning disabilities. In the education world there is constantly talk about teaching students on an individual level. Multimodal education is what allows for this to happen. Another question you present has to do with the volume of writing that is assigned in a classroom. I feel that writing is something that should be done very frequently (almost daily) in a classroom. However, when I say writing, I am not just talking about long traditionally constructed essays (although I still feel they are important and should have a place in the classroom). Writing itself can be learned and practiced in multimodal ways, as we have seen in this class (scripting for the digital stories). Even in the online community, as adults, students will still need the ability to write in order to function in society (email, social media, etc.) so I feel it still has a vital place in today’s classroom.

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  6. Amanda,

    I too share your existential crisis when it comes to this subject (though I tend to have an existential crisis when it comes to every subject, and I pray you do not). I can't help but feel like the more perspectives I read about the ways to teach, or not to teach, or to include, but not include, etc. I am finding myself with this feeling that I am just waiting for the whole system to collapse on itself.

    Then I breathe. I realize that this worry has existed since forever. The subject changes, but the worry is always there and so far, everything turned out OK (relatively, of course.) When it comes to matters of the classroom, I don't believe there is a better way to do things. It all depends on the relationship between the teacher and students. Practice will make the margins of failure shrink overall, but nothing will ever be perfect. So if multi-modality is your thing, and your students like it, keep doing that until it doesn't work, then try something else.

    When it comes to words and pictures and meanings, there will always be a variance. So I too disagree that pictures are more stable when interpreting meaning, but I disagree insofar based on my own knowledge of how I interpret. To Kress, maybe that is true. There is no right or wrong, and the paradox is in the argument that all meaning is subjective, but then discussing an opposing claim. The existential crisis extends when we question the limits of subjectivity.

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  7. Amanda, great post! In your first paragraph, you mention the rhetorical dynamic of visual representation, and toward the end there, you begin to suggest that we think the various types of visual interpretations we encountered in the chapter as genres employed with a purpose directed at a specific audience. Like you and others, I am skeptical of the distinction that Kress draws between writing and image. Indeed, the websites (spatial metaphor) which our screens mediate are often image/texts featuring both words and images which are read together. I think your question as to where to allocate our attentions within the classroom, I don’t think that the two need be mutually exclusive, because if we are framing the interpretation of all communications through a rhetorical framework, the students could well apply it to anything. This is to say, that if the students understand that all communications (visual, oral, spatial, etc) is designed with a purpose and audience in mind, and that it conforms to a genre[s], they will possess the basic means to engage any cultural artifact in meaning making and critique. As I have been stressing throughout this seminar, I think the distinction between digital and physical spaces is collapsing in many ways (many binaries are collapsing), so I’m not sure that maintaining the illusion is productive. Finally, I have a number of questions. Should Kress take into account the historic relationship between image and word? If to describe an image – even when it is independent of any linguistic mediation – means that we must do so via language, i.e. it must enter into the symbolic order, aren’t images reduced to language? Should Kress account for codex books in which there are multiple points of entry (encyclopedias, dictionaries, religious texts, almanacs, etc)? Should Kress account for languages which do not have a fixed syntax? What would Kress’ work stand to gain by accounting for the various intentions of images beyond pure representation? Does this emphasis fall into the modernist trap?

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  8. Amanda,

    Thanks for your post. Your blog entry gave me a lot to think about, in addition to the Drucker and Kress readings and, honestly, these are the things that keep me up at night (not really, but my head is spinning with all this information).

    I, too, had trouble with Kress' assertion that words are "empty" of meaning and are mere representations whereas visuals and depictions are more direct. I do get what is meant by that -- actual words themselves just represent an object or idea, and are somewhat meaningless. But aren't depictions just representations as well (albeit a little more direct)? What about description and imagery?

    I agree with everyone else that reader (or viewer) interpretation is important to how meaning is made, and that we as teachers should highlight this. I have encountered similar lessons to the one Brandon described (each students' critical lens) where students explore their own lens, as well as the author's. It can help them recognize their own bias and see texts and data from other perspectives.

    With regard to multimodality, I think students should be exposed to this frequently, and to be challenged to come up with their own projects that utilize text, speech, images, etc. This is how they encounter media and the world around them already. As teachers it is also our job to get them thinking about how their choices of representation affect meaning. If they include an image or a song in a digital project (like a digital story, for example) we as teachers should ask why it's there, what it's capable of doing that text cannot, etc.

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  9. The further along I get in the English program the more I realize that we are transitioning to a scientific approach. For which we have theories that we test in our communities “centered around experiential, subjective conditions of interpretation” (Drecker, 130). Furthermore as you explain all our truths are subjective, and similar to science very few things are considered laws, but theories that leave room for change. The introduction of the digital world is affecting science and English in the same ways. New ways to display thoughts, solutions, and questions.
    I agree with you about the visualization and writing being a great form of communication. I believe that in unison, together with the abilities that digital writing supplies us, we can further our understanding by introducing multimodal productions. But as we enter the ‘real’ world as teachers our limitations will be self-evident in the classroom. A multi-modal approach may be a hand-written essay with newspaper clippings glued to pages. But this skill of collaborating forms is transferable to digital writing.

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    1. Joe, it's interesting that you perceived this information in relation to a "scientific approach," which is definitely accurate. However, I perceived it to mean that the knowledge in both science and humanities take on a humanistic approach to interpretation (since these texts emphasize subjective interpretation). Either way, I think we're both right...it seems that knowledge in all disciplines are beginning to meet somewhere in the middle!

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  10. Great response, Amanda. I agree with you that on the whole Drucker’s argument essentially obligates composition instructors to begin considering design and other visual elements in how we teach analysis and argument, and I wonder if the structure of this chapter—in which Drucker takes us on a tour of myriad visualization and explores the assumptions and interpretations inherent in each—might provide the beginning of an answer for your closing question: how do we take this into account in our ELA classes given the very real practical and temporal constraints that are imposed upon us? I think the depth and complexity that Drucker achieves in his book might be beyond the standard high school ELA or freshman comp course, but the core principles of approaching visual representations and visual systems—charts and tables, advertisements, websites, etc.---with a rhetorical eye seems to be a natural starting point. Again, I think the depth that Drucker gets to in this chapter is a bit overwhelming in terms of informing our instruction, but I think on a basic level students would find interrogating such representations with an eye to what assumptions are inherent in them to be an engaging exercise. As I’m obligated to use Turnitin, I make a habit of exploring the website in front of my class and trying to unpack the design decisions the website makes to present itself in a certain light. Merely drawing attention to this content and helping students realize how much we take for granted when examining a visual representation might help clarify “the rules,” as you put it. I wonder, then, if that might help address some of Kress’ concerns—if a student can be attentive to how a deliberate choice of mode and how the assumptions inherent in that made create interpretation, they’re still working in the basic realm of rhetorical analysis, and they could still compose an essay that examines deliberate choices made by the author/creator and how those choices come together to form an intentional argument.

    We might even be able to make minor improvements to the compositions students produced; working within the constraints that many of us are, I don’t think we can necessarily move towards radical, Shipka-esque compositions for a majority of our assignments, but we could start asking for digital publication that is attentive to design (font, color, layout, etc). We can call on students to justify their design decisions and explain how they contribute to the composition’s argument. We don’t want to throw the baby of written/verbal literacy out with the bathwater, but the two definitely work together far more than Kress’ argument implies, and we can find a natural entry-point into how to modify our instruction by looking at that overlap.

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    1. Tim, I agree with you that while Drucker's analysis is indeed dense, it's a good starting point for the kind of interpretive thinking necessary in the digital world. While it may indeed be difficult to move toward "Shipka-esque" compositions, I do think that we are slowly heading toward this direction and I believe that an emphasis on multi-modality will help prepare our students for the possible evolution within future communication. If I COULD teach with a constant focus on multi-modality, I definitely would...especially since this type of re-application may, at the very least, help our students retain and consider information in ways that they wouldn't otherwise. Either way, a good starting point is, as you said, to begin with basic considerations such as the design decisions made when approaching websites.

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  11. Amanda,

    I agree with your resistance towards Kress's optimistic views about using images as a form of representation because I believe that Kress definitely oversimplifies the complexities of representation, whether it is digital, visual, or written.

    A popular example that can be found in Kress' article, which links to his belief in the use of visual representation, is in regards To Georgia's picture of her family, and, consequently, kindergartners using images in order to represent a moment in time (13-16). He views the images that are made by children as not an account, or a story, but a "display" that takes everything that occurred that day into one image (14). However, as a former kindergarten teacher I can say, that at young ages children draw what they think about more so than what actually happen. For example, I had many students draw pictures in their Weekend Journal (which, as you might have guessed is supposed to be about their weekend), where only children will give themselves siblings, and draw the late Michael Jackson at their party.

    On the outside looking in, it appears that the student is giving us a great representation of their weekend. You are able to see that there are people in a place doing something. However, once we take a closer look at the image, we are able to see that some students, mainly those that are younger and teeter on the edge of reality and falsehood, struggle with using images as a realistic representation of themselves, or their weekend. Therefore, I would have precautions about using images, digital or otherwise, as a major source of representation in younger classrooms because , for the most part, children are taught that drawing is for fun exploration and play, and writing is for school. Perhaps this is why in my kindergarten class we spent the first few entries of our Weekend Journal just recounting during drawing, which is where you would see students include superheroes at their house, etc. In the beginning everyone had a fantastical weekend, but once we pushed them towards writing more and more under their pictures, we were able to get a more complete view of what they were doing with their time. It is easy to draw an image where Michael Jackson goes to your party because, as I said before, drawing for younger children is fun, fantastical and creative; but it is a lot harder for students to write something that they know is not true.

    I am not against the idea of exploration into representation of self with images (digital or otherwise), however I think that it should be used above a specific age group due to psychological development of a majority of students. In other words, I believe that high school students will be able to give an authentic representation of themselves in digital media, but I am not sure that children who believe in the tooth fairy will be able to do so in a manner that can derive meaning, intelligence, skill for the teacher's purpose.

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