Considering Text

I grew up in a text-heavy world and I had a job as a newspaper journalist in a writing-heavy field of work, but even then, changes in how text – words, prose, etc. — was being used by writers and readers alike was afoot. I remember when the national newspaper, USA Today, became an experiment (criticized and at times mocked in the newspaper industry, at first, as being a blow to literacy) of how to prioritize visuals before text, with its use of flashy charts, diagrams, photos, and other visual media. That criticism collapsed as USA Today turned a profit while many traditional newspaper lost a bundle, or closed up shop completely. My old newspaper is a shadow of its old self.

I remain an avid writer, working mostly with words, just about every single day.

Yet I have long been fascinated by how we can expand the notions of “composition” to push ourselves, and our students, to consider what’s beyond the idea of just text (as important as the written word is, and always will be, in my own mind) to include other forms of media. A book I had helped edit years ago — Teaching The New Writing — was an attempt to explore what composition looked like in classrooms where technology was becoming part of the learning experience.

Teaching the New Writing 9780807749647
It would be nice to say we have found a balance, where text/words and media/technology mingle in tandem for deeper meaning. However, in working with young writers, it does seem that words have lost much of its primacy in favor of image, video, gif, etc. There may be many reasons for this — attention spans, screen devices, brain development, etc. The Pandemic sure has thrown things for a loop.

I’m not naive in thinking that the way I learned to communicate with words and writing and text will always remain the way that my students will learn, so I have long balanced helping them develop the art of writing (stories, essays, etc.) with the art of creating media (image, video, audio, games, etc.) to show how one form can partner with the other.

This blog reflection stems from some thoughtful comments left in a post the other day where I shared a mostly wordless video (my Ten Steps walking video project) and from two posts (here and here) that Terry Elliott shared over at his blog, where he indicates his own explorations of ‘text’ as an idea. The graphic above (Text is Gravity) is a remix of the first lines of a poem of his.

In a bit of unanticipated convergence, I visited and explored a text-based Virtual Reality exhibit from Laurie Anderson that was, in fact, centered on text — stories, letters, and more — inside an explorable space surrounded by word and letter. It reinforced the notion, to me, of how text itself remains a constant in how we navigate and understand and experience the world, no matter the technology. Of course, Anderson follows her own vision, and not all VR is likely to be centered on text as her work here is.

I hope we don’t reduce our world of communication to only the visual, and I don’t suspect that will happen. But trend lines for short videos (TikTok, etc) and visuals (Snapchat, etc) in the younger generation — coupled with a decrease in overall book and longer text reading — is something that all of us, educators and parents and others, need to keep an eye on, and maybe work harder to demonstrate the power of words, as a means of thinking and reflection as much as for communication.

Peace (writing it loud),

  1. Just a quick snap here: the demands on ‘readers and writers’ (note quotes) has never been greater. More skills chasing the same amount of time to become adept at them. How do we manage this as teachers and as learners? Super big question. What will the future be like as we try to answer that question? More responses in the verges and margins and the briars and the wild grapevines as time allows.

    • Yeah, and I don’t know. What are the chances the flow of information/text/media will slow rather than quicken? Unlikely. Curation. Filters. Skepticism. Reflection. Counter-narratives. These are the skills we need in the modern world. What gets lost is trust, in each other and in our own sense of being able to discern what is “truth” in the moment and what has been bent to meet the needs of someone else.

      • These needs are why I came to emphasize ’empathy’ in writing as a hard skill and trust as part of that hard skill even though I really don’t like the expression ‘hard skill’

  2. Yes– “balanced helping them [students] develop the art of writing (stories, essays, etc.) with the art of creating media (image, video, audio, games, etc.) to show how one form can partner with the other.” This is so important– and to understand each choice made in the process to communicate one’s message.

    Messaging in visuals puts forth perception, bias, and opinion about the content and context. That’s to be expected. I’m hoping that the linked text [with relevant visual/audio] includes the facts on which we discuss to come to an understanding to keep truth and trust at the forefront.

    Right now so many in social media and visual media and podcasts, etc. dispense opinion and even lies over and over as if they are facts and truth. If we can’t share, accept, and discuss facts and what the next steps could be, if we listen to “yeah-buts” of distraction, we lose trust in everything and everyone. And the easily fooled are always fooled, and we are divided. How do we as a society move forward, so divided with each spewing opinion– and opinion based on lies– as fact?

    I keep thinking of those ads in the back of magazines and comics in the 50s– the snake oil sales. Those are now every where, visual propagandists capturing audiences.

    And that gets us around to teaching students to recognize that — what is the message and purpose in the text and visuals– in the presentation?

    I’ve been appreciating the work with misinformation and disinformation.

    Does the work begin with each of us– a drop of suggestion and information that ripples out from our shore of the ocean of content and messaging, to help others dig deeper into the message and the truths within?

    • I think of those ads, too (comic book ads) and the ways to help young people read beyond and through the lines of information flowing their way. I do think the work begins with all of us, and continues with all of us. This means we have to be skeptical of nearly everything, which stinks, because that erosion of trust in what we read and share has larger implications for trust in society as a whole. I think Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have done more damage to societies and democracies as a whole than anything else in modern memory.

      • FB is even worse now– and the very premise on which it started says everything about why it is the way it is.

        I’m glad you are still in a classroom to keep the trust going…

        I think you and Terry should start a writing podcast…

  3. It’s election season again, and TV commercials along w Internet ads are bombarding us with sophisticated disinformation, or bending the truth in ways that intend to motivate a voter to choose one person over another.

    I feel the emotional pull from many of these, even from the right-wing candidates that I fear.

    Like so many other things, good solutions take a great amount of time and need to reach people all over the country/world.

    It’s good to see you talking about this.

    • I was struck by your term (which is correct, alas) of “sophisticated disinformation” and thinking of how entire industries are being born and nurtured to create mis/disinformation. What a world.

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