Zoetewey & Staggers, “Beyond ‘current-traditional’ design”

Zoetewey, Meredith W., & Staggers, Julie. (2003). Beyond “current–traditional” design: Assessing rhetoric in new media.Issues in Writing13 (2), 133–157.

Zoetewey and Staggers begin by describing the ways print epistemologies have restricted what we can know about composing. Namely, multimodal composing, particularly with hypertext, has invited us to see beyond “the single reality or the reliability of a single angle of perception”; however, many of the structures of educational institutions—not least in the ways assessments are structured—has encouraged students to have a fixed reality “usually in the form of a grade and at the very least in the form of some sort of cogent feedback” (1). “Print culture privileges the contained and controlled linear narrative that tacitly supports a conclusion based rationality…’print took the world apart and reassembled it in straight, regularly shaped, black-and-white lines. The problem is that not everything can be made to fit’” (Stephens qtd in Zoetewey and Staggers 2).

However, while new media allows us reassemble the fragments of reality in multiple layers of meaning, our epistemologies are still beholden to print culture. Consider, for example, the ways in which we conceptualize new media “in terms of old, comfortable ways of thinking” (3). Such remediation can be helpful in order to “ease the transition from the old to the new and allow us to make our first explorations of completely new worlds on comfortable grounds” (3). However, they also warn, “repurposing assessment criteria is tricky if you are trying to capitalize on the new opportunities afforded by new media” (3).

The authors organize the tie to print culture in two paradigms:

  1. Pro-verbal bias refers to the field’s privilege of verbal, alphabetic text. The consequences of such a paradigm “’ignores the possibility that different media function more or less effectively in different contexts’ but can work together to achieve rhetorical effects” (3). In other words, pro-verbal bias encourages students to think of meaning-making as only possible in a single mode.
  2. Word-image binary refers to the bifurcation of word and image rather than seeing them is inextricably linked in meaning: “text is read and interpreted; visuals are merely seen. Our inability to let go of our notions of word/image set up a framework in which words do one type of work and images another” (4).

The authors point to ways that composition theory of assessment has attempted to break away from this paradigms, pointing specifically to how we have often borrowed guidelines and models from other disciplines such as graphic design guidelines. However, using such graphic design rules or guidelines—like a checklist—runs counter to writing assessment’s focus on context: “using decontextualized (and often print-based) ‘rules’ derived from graphic design to assess electronic student discourse may be counter-productive at best and perilous at worst. Quick design fixes are reductive in that they are presented as succinct and abstract rules divorced form their theoretically rich foundations” (5). They draw parallels to such a perspective the current-traditionalist paradigm: learning to write as a matter of superficial correctness.

The authors suggest, citing Lauer, that when we build upon work from other disciplines, we “must acquire an accurate and thorough grasp of the work itself…[and] must understand its context, history, and status it enjoys in its parent field” (Lauer 26 qtd in Zoetewey and Staggers 5).


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