Video Games and Multimodality in First-Year Composition
Teaching writing requires instructors to address a question that does not have a clear answer: what type of writing should students consider good writing? Because the quality of writing can be judged only with an eye on the context in which it is read, writing instructors are forced into the unfortunate and impossible role of oracle when they are asked to foresee the future writing occasions and tasks that students will encounter. We would better serve students by equipping them with tools for navigating unfamiliar terrain themselves. Students need, as it were, a rhetorical map and compass in finding their way.
The availability of digital technologies has created a culture of communication in which textual forms take on diverse, creative, and difficult-to-define modes of representation. Many students are engaged in the consumption of these digital forms of communication, and the use of these forms has created additional literacy needs for future success inside and outside the classroom. Teachers of first-year composition (FYC) must rethink the types of texts they ask students to read if we want them to create multimodal projects. One approach is to offer a method for categorizing texts that helps students see the ways they are used to engage real readers. To address the problems and changing nature of FYC, new models of writing instruction are needed so that each student is capable of gaining independence and autonomy in the writing process.
To answer the changing nature of FYC, I have developed an approach based on a series of principles. First, courses need to ensure students become self-sufficient writers who can competently address writing tasks beyond the classroom as well as they can within it. Second, students need to develop what I call an evaluative approach to texts, which is an understanding of the text’s central claims, its relative credibility, and the ways writers might use the text for their own purposes. Finally, students need to become confident in their own abilities and be able to develop an authoritative role in the writing process. To facilitate these goals, I look for texts that are culturally accessible, multimodal, and relevant to a thriving set of discourses. For these reasons, I have been using a video game as a primary text—specifically, World of Warcraft (WOW), a game that is both a cultural icon and the subject of many texts in many contexts. [End Page 120]
Meaning, Texts, and Contexts
The selection of texts and how we approach them is about more than mere preference. Video games such as WOW can be used to contextualize a multitude of writing skills. A common complaint among composition instructors is the lack of academic seriousness or rigor in student writing. Essays lack depth because students rely on sweeping generalizations, selective evidence, or baseless assertions in the development of arguments. George Hillocks, in his Teaching Argument Writing, suggests that the reason for the lack of substantive arguments in student writing is the classroom focus on persuasive writing instead of logical argumentation. Often, students are eager to express their perspective, but when pressed for support and evidence, most struggle. In fact, many students admit to having a hard time developing a functional thesis statement, an essential component to developing a clear, well thought-out argument. Without students having this basic skill, it is no surprise that they fail to produce the quality of work we expect from them.
Knowing that the best form of expression varies dramatically from context to context, we must understand that instruction and curriculum should encourage students to take an active role in their own ways of thinking and in their abilities to engage audience expectations in a range of environments. James Paul Gee, in his Social Linguistics and Literacies, illustrates this point using as an example the variety of bars a person might frequent. In a bar frequented by lawyers or in a bar frequented by bikers, he explains, “it’s not just what you say or even just how you say it, it’s also who you are and what you’re doing while you say it” (3). Gee’s point about the relationship between context and the best methods for communicating is important for composition students to understand.
For instructors, Gee’s view means that teaching students to think about literacy as a complex relationship of communication decisions will help them to understand how to become accepted into a discourse community. Of course, WAC/WID programs attempt to deal with this dilemma; however, no matter how diverse the training, we cannot predict the future writing contexts of our students. In any writing course that teaches imitation—no matter how narrow or broad the selection of texts—independence is at stake. Regardless of how well a student is able to reproduce a text’s form, the transferability of the skills in new contexts will remain in question.
Because FYC strives to help students engage multiple contexts and purposes, instructors find themselves in a difficult position because of the many identifiable forms, skills, and expectations that characterize writing. Navigating the diverse contexts and demands will require our students be capable of considering the production of texts with a broad perspective. The compositionists of the New London Group, for example, provide a detailed analysis of student needs beyond the classroom by dividing literacy [End Page 121] practices into three areas they define as Working lives, Public lives, and Private lives (Cazden 65–71). In each of these areas, literacy cannot be defined by fixed forms or by a reducible set of expectations. The specific rules for language and modes of representation used in any one area of life are difficult to condense and will change over time. Our students will need to navigate those changes, and unless instruction can ensure self-sufficiency, students will be unprepared to address unfamiliar demands.
At first glance, WOW might appear to be an unusual text for a course focused on writing, but the landscape of literacy is changing. In many public areas of discourse, the written text is not the only text worth consideration, for, as Kress explains, “a distanced look at many public documents—not all it is true, but many—will reveal that the visual has reached a position of equality in many, and a position of dominance in some” (5). Because communication is often dominated by a form of literacy other than the written text, the definition of literacy must be expanded to help facilitate meaningful academic examinations of diverse forms or modes of representation, as Andrea Lunsford argued in her 2005 keynote address to the Computers and Writing Conference.
Students need not only a multimodal perspective on literacy but also an ability to apply the same level of critical analysis we expect from their work with written texts to a broad range of modes. The prevalence of digital technologies makes training in multimodal composing and consuming a necessity for fully engaged citizens. Popular and well-made games, like WOW, are successful because they invite engagement and interest. Games push players to see the world in new ways, to imagine themselves in new roles, and to engage other players in meaningful social interactions. Students must be prepared for the role technology is playing—and will continue to play—in our lives, and embracing digital texts will help with the process. In the FYC classroom, anticipating student needs in the digital age must be balanced with introducing students to basic academic discourse conventions, and with careful planning, both needs can be met simultaneously.
Students need to develop skills to meet the expectations of unfamiliar writing tasks in unfamiliar contexts. To do so, they need more than writing guides; they need to understand rhetorical elements and contextual concerns such as audience, discourse values, community assumptions, and available modes of representation. Video games offer a variety of contexts for instruction. The social dynamics in WOW, for example, offer the opportunity to reflect on cooperation, competition, experienced and novice interactions, and more. An ability to identify and navigate these factors is what I refer to as self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency does not mean the ability [End Page 122] to write in isolation, but it does mean an awareness of the relationship between context and text as well as an ability to recognize strategies of communication that include but are not limited to basic language skills. As the New London Group suggests, the focus for any classroom dealing with literacy should be teaching design.
When given the opportunity, students who examine complicated texts such as video games will gain practice in thinking through the dynamics of communication. Thinking about WOW as an object of design—a text designed with the purpose of engaging players—allows students to see the writing process as multifaceted and contingent. By having a structural understanding of the text (the game), students gain practice navigating unfamiliar communication tasks. As always, the classroom should focus on more than writing or speaking, it must also be a place for learning more effective reading and listening skills. To achieve self-sufficiency, instruction must focus of three distinct skill sets: analysis, argumentation, and production. In terms of our interaction with WOW, students must learn how to play, form an understanding and perspective on the game, and respond or explain from an informed position.
Reading nontraditional texts that require a shift in focus from language to other modes of representation creates a unique opportunity for practicing argumentation. While many classes ask student to base arguments in textual analysis, video games pose additional challenges. Using WOW as a textual artifact pushes students to describe the visuals and experiences that promotes deeper analysis. Students who write about games that they have played have substantial opportunity for relying on direct experience and first-hand familiarity with a topic. In other words, playing the game requires students to engage, learn, and make choices in a digital context. When students are asked to write about the game, they are forced to reflect on their experiences, which means they have the opportunity to authentically engage their topics. Each player experiences the game as a series of interactions. Playing the game allows students to make direct observations about their subject matter, a step that is essential to the development of a successful argument. As Hillocks explains, “without analysis of any data …[,] any thesis is likely to be no more than a preconception or assumption or clichéd popular belief that is unwarranted and, at worst, totally indefensible” (xxii). However, because students are working from concrete observations, having played the game itself, they have the opportunity to build arguments based on actual evidence.
To encourage students to look beyond the words written on a page, instruction should prepare students to identify and evaluate a text’s unstated purpose and its possible uses, not simply what the text conveys directly. Many students have learned, through their experiences in schools as decontextualized spaces, that the ability to summarize or restate the content is sufficient to succeed, a lesson that has significant consequences [End Page 123] for long-term learning. Gee’s discussion of physics students is a perfect example, “students who can write down Newton’s laws of motion, if asked the simple question ‘how many forces are acting on a coin that has been thrown up into the air?’ get the answer wrong” (What 24). An ability to recall information is very different from the ability to manipulate and apply what has been learned. The physics students that Gee is describing have only achieved the most basic level of knowledge: they can decode a text. However, application is the kind of higher-order thinking skill that is paramount for long-term usefulness of any acquired knowledge. We can help students go further by encouraging authentic, situated, contextualized writing occasions that push students to use higher order thinking. Analyzing WOW requires students to interpret and infer, to connect and extrapolate, to ask and respond. Writing instruction needs to promote a more active method of learning by requiring students to engage the material more directly.
Undergirding the skill sets required for self-sufficiency is the idea that students need to learn how to learn. The writing process can be long and difficult, and every writer brings distinct strengths and weaknesses. While some skills, such as the ability to follow the conventions of Standard Written English, are necessary aspects of literacy instruction in the university, other skills are equally important. In the CCCC position statement about assessment, a central principle is the recognition that “any individual’s writing ability is a sum of a variety of skills employed in a diversity of contexts, and individual ability fluctuates unevenly among varieties” (Conference). Therefore, students need to learn to recognize their own abilities and the skills that are still needed for new rhetorical occasions by looking at factors that compose each unique task including audience, context, and the available modes of representation. Providing students with an understanding of the process for learning and relearning discursive practices will serve them well as they attempt to navigate the unique challenges that will face them in the future.
Video Games and Design
My students spend the first two weeks of the semester playing WOW, primarily as homework but occasionally in class as well. Afterwards, they are asked to play less as we read a range of texts that relate to WOW, video games, technology, online culture, and education. The semester is designed to understand the game, both through experience and through examining related discourses. By using video games and other media that exist outside academic culture, teachers can look beyond the content and form and use the existent cultural context as a site for meaningful learning. Despite the cultural prevalence of video games, some students in my courses express apprehension when I announce video games as the center [End Page 124] of instruction because they do not consider themselves to be gamers. Many even share the commonplace belief that video games are a waste of time and money. Others are convinced that video games are addicting or that they contribute to violence (both perspectives have been topics researched by students in my courses). Nonetheless, each student is able to engage the material, build an argument, and craft an essay. Having students with a range of perspectives on the topic, from enthusiastic to critical, helps create a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to argumentation. Each student finds evidence and logical ways to support a position through first-hand experience, observations, and connections to scholarship.
Video games and digital media as part of the FYC curriculum can help broaden our students’ understanding of literacy by complicating traditional conceptions of reading and writing. Students learn to recognize that video games are rich with opportunities to discuss authorship as well as the interaction between audience and text. Simply playing the game is not enough: classroom discussion aimed at understanding how video games engage players and how game developers market the product can help students see games as products of “Design,” a key concept in the New London Group’s pedagogy of multiliteracies. As they explain, “we are both inheritors of patterns and conventions of meaning, and at the same time active designers of meaning. And, as designers of meaning, we are designers of social futures—workplace futures, public futures, and community futures” (Cazden 65). The available modes of representation become the materials any text creator—whether a writer or a game designer—has when developing their respective products. Therefore, the importance of conventions in writing is similar to the importance of conventions in game design or the conventions in a genre of music; helping students to see the relationship between established conventions and the active development of meaning helps them see the significance of an evaluative approach to texts and discourses.
Successful game play often involves looking at the game from the perspective of a game designer by thinking about the game construction and finding patterns. In his What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy, Gee offers 36 principles that he considers effective for learning, many of which reflect the ways students need to think about consuming and producing texts for themselves (221–36). It is no surprise that Gee, a member of the New London Group, addresses Design in his second principle, the “Design Principle.” He asserts that video games are useful for “learning about and coming to appreciate design and design principles” (221). This type of learning about the patterns and structures helps with the transferability of acquired knowledge by highlighting the rationale—i.e., the conventions—of texts. To understand how video games illustrate this point for students, it is important to recognize that game designers share many of the same concerns as any other designer of text. However, [End Page 125] video games offer a natural site for prompting students to read beyond or beneath the surface level by seeking meaningful patterns that can facilitate their thinking like designers. Because video games communicate in ways other than linguistic structures, it is easier to focus on design than on specific claims, which is the type of analytical thinking that will help our students become effective readers and creators of texts in traditional and nontraditional forms.
Learning to play video games, especially games as complex as WOW, requires an ability to decode systems of information in a number of ways that can illustrate to students how to navigate unfamiliar and multimodal texts. First, the visual and spatial components that compose these types of games can be overwhelming until useful tools and patterns emerge. In WOW, those tools and patterns include maps and quest icons. In addition, there are interface tools that need to be understood, and these tools in WOW include action bars and numerous menus (spell books, pet and mount guides, dungeon finder, raid finder, battlegrounds queue, and more). Also in WOW, there are two distinct types of language-based reading that players must master. First, there are many scripted components to the game that explain goals and storyline points. Some of explanations use familiar audio and visual components, but most need to be understood through a combination of context and traditional language literacy. The second form of language-based reading in the game is an interactive chat box that contains vital game information and is the primary form of communication with other players. All the components in the game that players must use to gather information are incomplete, partial sources, so players must learn to recognize how each form of information is working in context of the game as a whole, making WOW a perfect and accessible example of a multimodal text.
Despite being largely considered entertainment, video games are fruitful sites for encouraging thoughtful engagement with traditional FYC concepts such as the Aristotelian appeals and audience awareness. In terms of emotional appeal, for example, my students’ responses to WOW were varied and created an opportunity for reflection. Some students focused on the use of violence, from the focus on war at the heart of the game to the inclusion of visually appealing, cute tiger cubs. Others found the artistic depth and nature of the landscape appealing. For other students who became interested in the mechanics of the game, the internal reward system and social validation that encourage game play helped deepen their understanding of creating appeal and connecting with audiences. As the numerous emotional influences are identified and discussed, students are able to see how game designers can capitalize on the emotions of players to encourage game play.
To strengthen our students’ abilities to think from the perspective of a designer, instruction must introduce them to concepts and language of design. Appropriate terms and definitions give students the language [End Page 126] to describe texts in useful ways that will help further develop a broader appreciation for the construction of texts. Terms such as delivery, vocabulary, metaphor, information structures, and global coherence relations are the “metalanguage” of design (Cazden 80). While these terms can be useful, instruction that focuses on traditional rhetorical concerns will be beneficial as well. In either case, the goal is to help students see the text as an object of design. Introducing the language of rhetoric and textual analysis can help students think about digital texts and traditional texts with a broader understanding of authorship and context based writing.
The process of understanding a video game as a text to be read critically can serve as a model process for approaching more traditional forms of academic texts later in the semester. “Reading” video games prepares students for the development of insightful academic essays that conform to traditional devices and structures. I share Hillocks’ concerns about our student’s ability to formulate a concise, logical, supported argument, so I ensure students will be able to formulate realistic, well thought-out arguments by teaching a formula for the thesis that is directly related to my explanations about reading texts for understanding. The thesis formula is based on Toulmin’s conception of argument through claim, data, and warrant. If students can formulate a sound thesis statement, they are more likely to produce a viable argument when they develop an essay. The analytical work required by reading a video game as text prepares students to produce the kind of insightful, complex arguments we expect.
The process starts with game exposure. Reading video games requires that students play games for understanding. Students are asked to make observations about a game, interpret its message, and defend their interpretation. WOW’s well-developed game mechanics and lore provide many opportunities for insightful examination. For example, students might be asked to consider the way the game uses race and class (designations for character design in the game). Some students draw connections to current events while others may compare the elves in the game to other mythologies. Alternatively, students might be asked to consider the ways the game has characters interact with the environment, leading some students to discuss environmentalism or renewable resources and others to consider the full production cycle for manufacturing clothing. The process is identical to the formulation of a thesis statement, and students are prepared to develop an argument as soon as they are comfortable interpreting the game. The interpretive process requires critical thinking that helps students move beyond summary or paraphrasing. When students are able to view texts through a variety of lenses—and identify numerous textual patterns and concerns in light of contextual factors—they will be prepared to enter unfamiliar writing situations with confidence and without the classroom supports that are a part of the FYC classroom. Only when students can see writing from the perspective of a textual designer can they be considered self-sufficient. [End Page 127]
Layers of Discourse: A Model for the Classroom
To plan my courses around the learning goals of FYC, I wanted a model that I could use to structure my courses. I group texts based on the relationships among the author, text, and audience while maintaining a significant tie to a primary text. The model I have developed includes four types of discourse. Although I apply it to video games, the model is applicable to any course that uses a primary text that can function in an overall approach that I call “Layers of Discourse.” The model necessarily functions around a unifying topic that also functions as a primary text. Building from a text, I define three additional layers: immediate, intermediate, and academic. Implementing the model is a multistep process in which students explore texts and consider the ways writers approach their subject and audience to achieve a specific purpose. Each layer is defined by the relationships and familiarity between the audience, author, and subject.
In my own courses, video games are a primary text and the subject of student essays. Students begin with the video game. They produce their own reflections and interpretations based on their time playing the game. Then, we complicate and deepen our conversations by adding additional texts to class discussions. We start with texts immediately related to the game, written by or for players, focused entirely on the game. We move on to more general texts that attempt to reach wider audiences to see how writers approach the topic of video games and the types of arguments they are able to make and the rhetorical strategies that are used. After considering the game, discourse about the game, and the wider cultural dialogue about games, we read texts published in peer-reviewed journals that focus on video games. To encourage students to understand different approaches to a subject, the additional texts treat video games from different perspectives and for different purposes. To use the model, instructors need to draw from a variety of sources to illustrate the discourse layers, and each source must draw attention to significant issues related to the central text.
The first layer of my model, designed experience, encourages students to consider how their interactions with a text drive the ways in which they understand the text. Nontraditional texts remove the ability for students to settle for basic summary practices and create an opportunity for instruction to explain textual interpretation and creation from a more structural and theoretical position. Although any intentionally designed, experience-based mode of expression (e.g., architecture, comic books, gallery spaces, haunted houses, theme parks, firework displays, obstacle courses, formal ceremonies) are options for the designed experience layer.
Video games function very well as an example of designed experience, and they can challenge the language-based conception of literacy [End Page 128] because of the alternative modes of expression and engagement required for understanding. As such, they not only offer significant opportunities to discuss literacy in a broader sense but also to engage students in the use of digital tools. In my own classroom, one such assignment requires students to bring in two pictures, one of themselves and one of the WOW character that they created at the beginning of the semester when starting the game. Students are asked to read the images of themselves and each other. In looking at the pictures, students are asked to analyze how they are being represented. This type of assignment challenges students to consider how they are constructing themselves in both real and digital spaces and how their choices communicate ideas to those who view their digital presence. Ultimately, the experience layer of discourse allows for two benefits, among others, to the FYC classroom: first, it provides opportunity for interpretive analysis, and, second, it provides the opportunity for first-hand familiarity with subject matter.
The second layer, immediate discourse, is composed of game manuals, gamer forums, and classroom discussion about the games. In any given college classroom, there will be a range of expertise among students about the subject of video games, and no matter how much time an instructor sets aside for students to engage with the games, many students will not become expert players. Still, brief exposure will ensure that they are capable of understanding and assimilating the technical, jargon-laden second layer of discourse in which the conversation seeks to explain games and gaming experience. Those who are familiar with the form, content, and experience of game play are more capable of accessing the meaning and understanding the value of texts in the immediate discourse. The primary benefits of the immediate layer of discourse for students are the reinforcement of experience, the development of technical language, and exposure to a specific value set and rhetorical environment.
The authors and audiences producing texts characteristic of an immediate discourse are likely familiar (or invested in becoming familiar) with the game and have shared experiences (as gamers). In the examination of discussion forums, for example, the use of correct shorthand takes priority over grammatical correctness, years playing the game can lend a sense of credibility, and topical references help create good will. Showing students that credibility is contextually developed will help them see the value of traditional academic literacy conventions later in the semester by promoting discussion in terms of rhetorical effectiveness instead of standards of correctness. [End Page 129]
Drawing on newspapers, magazines, and other media that attempt to reach a wide audience, the intermediate layer of discourse presents a very different type of communication from that of the immediate layer. Readers and writers in the intermediate layer are less often focused on video games as a primary subject, but they discuss video games to make observations about social concerns. For example, a newspaper article published by The New York Times and titled “The Life of a Chinese Gold Farmer” focuses on economic and ethical concerns caused by the popularity of the game (Dibbell). Students can compare the rhetorical strategies of the author with that found in the gamer forums and guides. Unlike the immediate discourse, the article assumes the audience does not know about games, so basic parts of gaming culture are explained, terms are defined, and the focus is on the human-interest elements of the story. Video games are discussed with extraordinary frequency in popular media and in relation to an extensive range of concerns (e.g., violence, sexism, etc.) and disciplines (e.g. health, economics, religion, international relations, etc.). In the classroom, this layer contributes to learning by addressing many of the commonplace beliefs that students themselves hold and by building on the knowledge and experience developed earlier in the semester. By speaking to a wide audience, the intermediate layer of discourse effectively functions as a point of comparison for the texts produced by gamers for gamers while continuing to push students to use their own knowledge and experiences to understand and assess arguments.
The final layer of discourse in this model is academic, and it represents the type of writing that is expected in a required FYC course in a university setting. Students writing at the academic level are expected to take on the role of expert in their own writing and engage with other experts. Assignments prepare students for this type of engagement by exposing them to scholarly journals, scientific studies, monographs, books of collected and edited essays, conference papers, and lectures that effectively model academic language and communication strategies. Students are encouraged to use these texts as models for their own writing.
The academic layer is last because academic discourse can be difficult for some students to access. However, the previous layers will have provided the background knowledge needed to deal with difficult language, abstract concepts, and unfamiliar forms. The foundation, provided by experience with the subject matter, prepares students to consume and assimilate the form and content of the academic layer more effectively. Understanding context and argument will help students make sophisticated decisions in the production of situated texts—i.e., texts designed for [End Page 130] a specific purpose. For academic essays, this means framing an argument, selecting appropriate support, and advancing a well-thought out perspective while following conventions of genre.
Distinctions between discourse types are useful for discussing rhetorical contexts and purposes, and instruction should encourage students to differentiate between the layers of discourse, based on audience, value systems, and meaning-making strategies. Each type of discourse can be characterized by the way the text designer works to engage the audience and to achieve a rhetorical purpose. While students work through the different layers, it is as important to identify where the distinctions break down as it is to understand the distinctions themselves because the goal is to prepare students to navigate complicated and complex texts.
Student Empowerment: Competent and Confident Writers
Instruction aimed at facilitating self-sufficiency requires a classroom in which students can see themselves as capable readers, designers, and producers of texts. Because students are still constrained by institutional structures, like the teacher-student relationship and the grade system, it can be a challenge for them to take on the authoritative role necessary for taking ownership of writing tasks. Peter Elbow examines the tension between writers and academic institutions in “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” He describes the writing situation of students who find themselves writing for a reader who knows more about the subject than they do. As such, Elbow explains, the writing classroom forces students into a passive role because “they have to write ‘up’ to an audience with greater knowledge and authority” (81). Elbow’s solution is to remove the academic authorities in his writing courses so that students do not feel pressured to appease them. However, ignoring the reality of writing for an audience, academic or otherwise, for the sake of temporary student comfort is an act of sheltering and not instruction. Instruction needs to ensure that as students move beyond the classroom—the uniquely supportive writing environment—they will be prepared to meet the difficult challenges of considering audience and context.
Therefore, students must be equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate authority and recognize strategies for doing so. The intention of my Layers of Discourse approach is the opposite of what Elbow suggests: instruction that follows the model helps students recognize and learn from the authorities after first gaining some authority themselves. Without the opportunity to become experts, students seek to mimic the voice of an ambiguously defined academy. The result is, David Bartholomae suggests, failure, for “[in the classroom] the student, in effect, has to assume privilege without having any” (143). Instead of setting students up for failure, instruction needs to provide opportunities [End Page 131] for students to develop authority in comprehension and voice. Students who have become familiar with a narrow topic and the many ways it can be approached become writers with first-hand experience and a degree of understanding about the ways the subject is discussed. Each student, therefore, is better positioned to evaluate the claims made by other writers and to make claims for themselves.
Because the focus of this type of instruction is on transferability, I use more than formal writing assignments to measure student progress. Writing instructors need ways of testing for transferable skills. For this reason, I ask my students to critique and justify their own writing choices. If students are able to explain the strengths and weaknesses of their own writing as well as the writing of others, they are effectively demonstrating mastery of high level writing concepts that will follow them once the classroom supports are removed. In addition to formal writing assignments, I presently use two assignments to measure mastery. The first is a type of reverse outline assigned after a formal essay has been submitted. I ask students not only to outline their essay, but also to explain the strengths and weaknesses of each portion of the essay. The reverse outline is an opportunity for students to examine their own work as an instructor might do, and it reinforces the importance of evaluative reading.
The final exam, my second measurement, functions in a similar way. Students are asked to explain many of the rhetorical concepts that we have examined during the semester, and they are asked to evaluate their own writing assignments. Because a significant amount of time is devoted to reading texts for a substantive understanding, the final exam allows students to look at their own work from the perspective of an academic reader. The final exam functions as a measurement of independence because students are required to articulate the strengths and weaknesses of their own writing. The assignment effectively removes the supportive structures that students rely on during the semester by requiring students to find their own way.
By establishing an environment that challenges traditional notions of reading and writing at the same time it questions the definition of good writing, my Layers of Discourse model forces students to take responsibility for their own writing choices and allows them to take on the roles of expert and designer. Because of their engaging, multimodal nature, video games, as foundational texts in the model, are especially effective for allowing students the opportunity to consider multiple textual forms, social contexts, and personal identity. This approach recognizes the rapid pace at which conventions of communication can change and the stakes of writing instruction. Like the pedagogy of multiliteracies proposed by the New London Group, the model described here looks to reconcile the content of the writing classroom with the skills students need. As the New London Group explain, their treatise seeks to create “a different kind of pedagogy, [End Page 132] one in which language and other modes of meaning are dynamic representational resources, constantly being remade by their users as they work to achieve their various cultural purposes” (Cazden 64). This model for teaching, especially as I implement it using video games, gives students tools necessary to play with communication strategies and learn the process of assimilating a discourse and applying it as an expert.
The FYC classroom is a unique space where students can be given the opportunity to try on the identity of an expert. This very act of learning can be characterized as a process of play. The strong relationship between play and learning is explained by Lev Vygotsky when he writes, “The creation of an imaginary situation is not a fortuitous fact in a child’s life, but rather the first manifestation of the child’s emancipation from situational constraints” (99). In other words, the act of play is a method of moving beyond the limitations of a situation by practicing an identity that has not yet been achieved. In my classroom, students learn to play with and design texts. Because of the extended examination of video games, students are able to try on the role—and authority—of the expert. No matter what texts are brought into the classroom, instruction should encourage this type of play. By providing students with critical perspective and encouragement, the writing classroom can take on a significant role in the development of students as critical thinking, self-sufficient, competent, and confident writers. Students who can think like designers of texts are capable of setting themselves up for success. They are ready to think critically about writing and think critically about their own lives.
Bremen Vance is a Ph.D. student in the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program at Iowa State University. His research interests focus on multimodal writing practices and pedagogies.