Visual Composition Strategies- 2012 Workshop

Presenter: Elizabeth Tasker-Davis

Multi-modal teaching does not have to be high tech.  Let’s start with some low tech visualization strategies.  A visual approach to invention, planning, and research offers low stakes high impact methods for writers to develop content and composition practices.  Visual planning can serve as an invention strategy, suggesting appropriate “modes” and “methods” of information design.

Visual Invention

Three ideas for incorporating visual invention into writing projects:

  1. Poster design for discovering modes and methods of discourse
  2. Storyboarding as a low stakes exercise in arrangement
  3. The mixed media notebook for thematic research

Having students work in small groups to design posters about an assigned reading facilitates critical reading and analysis skills.  Readings that present different categories of information, levels of detail, and multiple connotations, lend themselves to visual display.  After the groups create their posters, the teacher can lead the class in comparing the various design choices and discussing how these visual presentations could translate into student essays.


Sample Assignment: The Toga Poster Project

For this in-class project, you will work in pairs to transform the text excerpt from Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory into an informational poster.  Using the principles of visual argument, the poster should aim for a middle style that strives to direct and inform the reader/viewer in the important points of Quintilian’s text.

The poster should have a title, headings, body text, and some type of visual elements (images, icons, bullets, lines, shading, etc—NOT ALL OF THESE, BUT SOME).  All elements should be arranged according to some kind of grid scheme and color scheme.  Any images should have captions.

You will design the poster today and present it to the class on Wednesday.  Your presentation should explain your overall approach and how you accomplished it through a hybrid argument of visual and verbal elements.

This exercise is worth 2 daily grades (20 points).

Storyboarding Synthesis

Last year at this symposium, the Synthesis Workshop included the concept of a synthesis matrix.  Storyboarding is another useful visual invention exercise to aid in the pre-writing of a formal synthesis essay involving multiple texts.  This is an excellent exercise to begin a research paper.

Storyboarding is a type of outline that visually “chunks” information, which then can be easily presented to others.  The acts of chunking, presenting, and receiving feedback help a student writer to envision and test the effectiveness of various organizations for a text before detailed drafting begins.

Materials needed:

  • Poster board
  • large post-it notes
  • magic markers.

To make a storyboard synthesis, students will need to:

  1. Read two or three sources on a related topic (students may pick the topic, but the teacher will want to approve their choice of sources).
  2. Identify key points in each source, either by annotating sources in the margins, taking notes, writing a short summary, or creating a synthesis matrix.
  3. On the top of the poster board, write a title that describes the topic; underneath the title, write a subtitle that names the authors and the sources.  (The poster board can be oriented as portrait or landscape)
  4. On the top of a post-it note, write “Introduction.”  Then make notes about what the introduction would include: basically, the topic, the names of the sources, and the thesis statement (for a persuasive paper) or a summary statement (for an explication).
  5. Use as many Post-In notes as needed to represent subtopics of the essay.  Each subtopic should be a category of information related to the main topic.  Each subtopic should be represented by a title or label written on the top of the post-it note.  Then, a few phrases should be listed to indicate the planned content of the subtopic.  Most of the subtopics should contain information from multiple sources, but a few may relate to only one source.
  6. Starting with the Introduction post-it note, arrange the notes on the poster board in the order that you would discuss them in an essay.
  7. Rearrange the order and add or remove topics as necessary.  (Students may discover that some of their planned subtopics don’t really fit into the discussion.  They may also find that a few new subtopics are needed.)
  8. Present the outline to the class.  Also discuss alternative arrangements of the information with the class.  Share your concerns and questions about the design and flow of the essay with the class.
  9. Adapt your organization based on class feedback.
  10. Write the first draft of the essay according to the plan on the storyboard.


The Mixed Media Notebook

The activity of keeping a mixed-media notebook or scrapbook for an extended period of time such as a semester or a few months allows students to gradually develop a relationship with a given subject.  Time and reflection deepens students’ critical thinking about a topic (and increases the likelihood they will experience “Aha! moments”) without their realizing the extent of the work they are doing.  Here is an example from my Literature of Satire Class.

 ENG 233H – Final Project

Book of Satire

The major project for the course will consist of the creation and presentation of a book of satire targeting a broad theme of your choosing.  Your project will be to collect, annotate, and analyze samples of literature, journalism, art, and possibly other media that treats your selected theme in a satiric manner (that is, with irony and humor).  Possible topics include but are not limited to:

Education/ learning

Gender identity / masculinity / femininity

Gender relations / marriage / sex

Humans and Animals

The Human Body

Food and Beverages


Public spaces/gatherings/events

Private spaces/ family/ home

Philosophy and Cultural theory

Theories of Art and Literature

City life vs. country life

Corruption and Crime


The project has three requirements:

1) a satire notebook containing a miscellaneous collection of satiric excerpts, quotes, cartoons, and examples about your theme, supported with your own commentary.  The notebook can consist of any type of binder, but the samples need to be attached in some way and not loose.  Your notebook should have a title, include a title page, and begin with no more than a one-page typed introduction.  At a minimum, you should include at least 12-18 samples of satire, including one sample from at least two of our four class units (introduction, drama, prose fiction, and other media).  Each sample should have a caption and a brief annotation explaining its significance to your theme.

2) a 7-8 page reflective essay about your theme as a subject of satire.  Your essay must focus on one primary text in-depth or on a particular satiric method or device in two or three primary texts.  Your essay must use a work from class as the primary text for analysis.  If you choose to analyze multiple works, the second text can be another work that we read in class or an additional work by the same author.  The third text can be additional work from our class readings, a work from the same author, or a work of satire outside of our class reading.  All works that are not part of our class readings should be approved by me.

Your paper must analyze the purpose, message(s), methods, devices, as well as the satiric effects of the work(s) in relation to your notebook’s theme.  Your discussion needs to tie your personal response both to the theme itself and the works you discuss.  You can use secondary sources; however, secondary research is not a requirement.  Follow MLA guidelines for formatting and attribution.

3) a 10-minute presentation of your topic.  Your presentation should do four things: 1) introduce your topic, 2) briefly describe the types of samples you have collected, 3) provide more detail and a visual related to one sample, and 4) explain any trends that you have discovered about your theme in relation to genre, time, society, or some other variable.

 Grade Breakdown

Your research project is 30% of your grade for this class, which I will calculate as follows:

  • Satire notebook     10%
  • Reflective essay    15%
  • Satire presentation              5%

Sample notebooks to be shown in PowerPoint.

The Lesson of Objects

The March 2012 issue of College English contained an article by leading composition professors Doug Hesse (U of Denver), Nancy Sommers (Harvard), and Kathleen Blake Yancey (Florida State) describing a collaborative writing project the three of them did together on writing explication.  They also presented this project at the CCCC conference to a packed and enthusiastic crowd.

Basically, their project involved keeping a 30-day journal to describe specific objects that had meaning in their lives and then writing an essay based on their journal entries.  The objects served as writing prompts from which they generated detailed descriptions and deep personal reflections.  Thus, this practice belongs to the expressivist approach to composition.

The popularity of the presentation at the CCCCs may suggest that composition pedagogy is shifting back to a renewed focus on aesthetics and personal contemplation.  Although some may see this approach as not audience-focused, I think the approach has value because the appeal of familiar and personal objects can act as a motivator for the writer.  We all have expertise and experiences with the objects that surround us, so we should have lots to say about them.

Even if the lesson of objects is not an audience-focused approach to composition, it is practice for the writer.  It can be used to get students thinking and writing, which should help them develop their skills, fluency, and mechanics.

Exercise: Critical Reading and Information Design

This exercise requires you to design a poster on the topic of writing teacher evaluation.

  1.  Read the Guidelines for Teacher Evaluation (March 2012 NCTE Policy Research Brief), which you will find in the “Appendix for Workshop 1.” Circle or annotate important items in the article.
  2. Working in groups of three, design a poster to present at a meeting with administrators and teachers from different schools.  Your poster should advocate for what your group thinks are the most important points and proper methods of writing teacher evaluation as presented in the article.
  3. Discuss what you think is important to include on your poster.  Each group can develop its own purpose and priorities.
  • Keep the text limited to information provided in the essay.
  • Arrange information in logical groupings.
  • Try to use language that is informative, succinct, and memorable.
  • Be sure to use headings.
  • Use 2-4 visual images as key elements on your poster. (Use place holders, or frames, for visuals.  You can simply label the place holder, or the person with the best drawing ability can sketch inside the placeholder).

4. Discuss with the larger group:

  • How did the design activity deepen your consideration of the subject matter?
  • What methods of organization/development does your poster use?
  • What value did the use of layout, headings, and images add?
  • Could you write an argument based on your poster?