Category Archives: Shipka

Encouraging Students to Imagine with Shipka

Cognizant that the student work featured above may seem strange, especially when the norm for student work is equated with linear, argumentative, thesis-driven print texts that are passed forward in class and geared primarily, if not exclusively, to an audience of one (the instructor), I would suggest that the rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices students made while engineering these complex rhetorical events merit serious and sustained attention. Based on the kind, quality, and scope of work I have witnessed students producing for the past seven years, I am moved to argue, with George’s claim in mind, that students have a much richer imagination for what might be accomplished in the course than our journals have yet even begun to imagine, let alone to address. (282)

I admit it readily enough: I am often afraid of technology. So while I love multi-genre work and in theory embrace assignments focused on transfer, visual rhetoric, multimodal forms, media, and digital or audio components, sometimes I get nervous. What if my students want to translate their argument into a podcast and I don’t have the first idea of how to help them? What if they are as nervous as I am about the idea of a translation or original argument created in a multimodal, digital, audio, or interactive media format, such as a text-based video game or a video essay?

Some of the examples that Shipka brings up remind me that I shouldn’t worry, because offering students room to imagine how how they might best bring a complex idea to their audience might far surpass my own imagination. I’m now certain that no one under the age of 25 has any kind of anxiety about using digital or mobile technologies, so if my students don’t yet know how to produce a podcast on their phones, they will surely find a way to do so. It’s impressive to see what is possible for multimodal assignments, and also raises the question for me of how to best frame them, when there is a lot of choice — such as a choice of both topic AND genre — involved.


The most important things, I think, about Shipka’s work, are that it asks students to be responsible for their own writing choices, and then to explain those choices. It’s so (bear with me) groundless in some ways for the students that they need to invent a wheel, and then they need to say “okay, this is why I built this particular wheel.” By groundless, I mean that she leaves very very much of it up to the students, and while mine is a pedagogy of student choice, the assignments of hers I’ve seen seem to be less scaffolded than I’ve ever been able to pull off.

I’ve always found her work both inspiring and confusing. I’ve done some workshops with her and have always been a little confused about what’s going on. The projects she describes here sound pretty cool, but I can also see some students getting lost in the shuffle because, in some ways, she seems to rely on a LACK of scaffolding (and pedagogically, I understand why she does.) Hers is a pedagogy that necessitates a moment of frustration, one which students must get over to make projects which are often very cool. I wonder if this works with all student populations, though.

It would be difficult to argue against multimodality in her work, though (although I’ve certainly heard people do it.) The metacognitive reflection of the “heads up” statement shows students working through the decision making of writing in the way of true practitioners—and the examples she uses are interesting, engaged, contemporary examples that explore language. The fact is, students are using these types of writing already (or they are interested in doing so) and her assignments, lack of scaffolding and all, help them see writing as a process of invention rather than an act of following someone else’s inscrutable rules.


I am suggesting that assignments that predetermine goals and narrowly limit the materials, methodologies, and technologies that students employ in service of those goals while ignoring the “complex delivery systems through which writing circulates” (Trimbur 290), perpetuate arhetorical, mechanical, one-sided views of production.

I think this is an excellent companion to Kynard, Devitt, and even Grant-Davie in that all of them are at heart talking about “destabilizing students’ theories” of composition, especially first year writing. Shipka in particular just simply blew my mind as I thought about the possibilities. Even if a student’s work doesn’t use a full-on Shipka-esque approach, tapping into their knowledge of and ease with multimodal communication, combining it with “research as question” to generate content and meaning, directing it at specific audiences (and not just the teacher) and taking advantage of cross-genre presentation, seems not only possible but an exciting way to pull a lot of Teaching for Transfer/reflective practice threads together. I think I’m too tired to do this justice tonight, but although I’ve dabbled a bit in multi-modal projects, it has always been slip-shod, the results varying from utterly horrific to absolutely astonishing. This is an area I really want to do more with.

You want it…how?

Shipka had me from the moment she mentioned “visual literacy.” I think I am a multi-modal poster child. I teach with John Cage, with Yoko Ono, with Gothic sculpture… I won’t go into much detail here, except to say that there is a legit, super-simple script I learned from big poo-bah sociologists in the Education Dept at MoMA that will get your students talking super fast. And I am happy to teach it to you when we meet.

Thing is: you need to be really visually literate yourself before you can explain to students just what the heck it is they learned about “English” and “writing” — and you have to think on your feet to do it. The next day, after a particularly weird Jackson Pollock-prompted assignment with a summer section of Remedial Reading, I asked the students if they found it helpful. About half the class said “very”; the other half shrugged.

The Shipka reading was totally exciting — and problematic.

She says: In this essay, I look to theories of goal-oriented activity as a w reconceptualizing production, delivery, and reception in the composition classroom…” and those goals include “…demonstrate an enhanced awareness of the affordances provide media they employ in service of those goals; (2) successfully contextualizing, structuring, and realizing the production distribution, delivery, and reception of their work; and (3) to negotiate the range of communicative contexts they encounter…”

I don’t think that “goals” work with such open-ended activities. If you want creativity, you better be ready to get it. In any form. Most museum education departments are guilty of fostering the creation of a whole lot of bad art in service of getting the public to be creative.