New ways of showing are new ways of knowing

Matt Gilchrist

Matt Gilchrist, a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department, is Director of the Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning Initiative (IDEAL), which supports students and instructors who use new media in course assignments.

The University of Iowa’s Next Gen PhD planning initiative, The Newly Composed PhD, is an important part of the growing acknowledgement that humanities PhD graduates thrive in diverse career tracks not bounded by academia. The NEH grant program that supports Iowa’s initiative asserts that “Humanities knowledge and methods can make an even more substantial impact on society if students are able to translate what they learn in doctoral programs into a multitude of careers.” How do we prepare PhD students to make such a substantial impact? The NEH wants us to “transform scholarly preparation at the doctoral level.” At Iowa—the institution that proudly calls itself The Writing University—the transformation begins with writing. The Newly Composed PhD asserts that the understanding derived from study in the humanities should be composed in many forms.

The scholars who took part in last year’s symposia hosted by The Newly Composed PhD demonstrate that much can be learned by meaning-making in varied modes. Dr. Amanda Visconti composed her dissertation, titled How can you love a work if you don’t know it?: Critical code and design toward participatory digital editions, as a hybrid of digital edition, white paper, and hypertext. But such a stripped-down description doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the project, the composition of which involved software design, database design, interface design, graphic web design, and more. Along the way, Visconti tweeted, blogged, created data visualizations, and spoke on a variety of digital humanities topics. As her dissertation shows, Visconti has discovered new possibilities for inquiry through the process of composing in many forms.

Like Visconti, Dr. Nick Sousanis composed his thesis in a non-traditional form. Sousanis’s dissertation is the comic Unflattening—a form that allowed him to use image as a primary semiotic resource. Like Visconti, Sousanis told us during the symposium dedicated to discussing his dissertation that he blogged about his work as he was composing it. For a hint about what Sousanis was thinking early in his dissertation process about the power of composing in comic form, see the quote from Susanne K. Langer he offers in a blog post. In his discussion here at the University of Iowa, Sousanis put it this way: “My comics are smarter than I am.”

Our Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Dan Reed, pointed out in a recent blog post on this site that writing a traditional book-length dissertation is commonly understood as the means of documenting and communicating ideas privileged in the humanities PhD, but that this format isn’t very effective at spreading those ideas. Dr. Reed writes that, if the form limits the reach of important ideas, then scholars should look for another medium—one appropriate to the message. This semester, Dr. Reed will visit a course I teach for graduate students in the sciences called “Science Communication in the Digital Age.” Much like the NEH’s support for The Newly Composed PhD, the NIH provided grant funding that helped to launch this course in order to prepare scientists for careers beyond the academy. The funded project at Iowa, directed by Professor Dan Eberl (Biology), focuses on communication skills and rhetorical forms. The course acknowledges the importance of addressing audiences outside of academia as crucial for achieving the NIH’s goal of “broadening training to better prepare students for research careers in a variety of venues, such as industry, government or entrepreneurial enterprises.” The support of both federal grant agencies responds to a long-standing need for pragmatic communication experience in the new media landscape, extending and complementing the efforts of those who seek and offer such training at the graduate level.

If the humanities is to move beyond the “write only” paradigm Dr. Reed calls “one of the biggest challenges we face in academia,” humanities students will need courses—corollaries to Science Communication in the Digital Age—specifically targeted at their needs. The write only paradigm cannot be justified amidst the range of rhetorical forms now readily available to scholars. These new forms—or new media—require a new approach to the fundamentals of composition. No longer can we assume that fluency with the conventions and grammars of alphabetic text represents the fundamental or most significant means of developing and sharing ideas. Instead, communicating ideas now requires awareness of image and visual design, sound and audio design, code and software design, data and database design, and etc. Humanists remain writers, but we are called to write and. Scholars and teachers in the field of composition use the term multimodal composition to describe, analyze and assess texts that incorporate writing and other modes of representation. Thinking in these terms makes clear that writing is one of many overlapping semiotic resources available to a rhetor. Meaning-making is a central goal of the humanities, and ignoring compositional modes other than alphabetic text cuts us off from many kinds of meaning-making and discoveries.

This semester, Professor Judith Pascoe offers a course that allows PhD students in the humanities to practice with digital humanities methods and multimodal composition. Pitched as a “pilot model of a humanities interdisciplinary methods course,” this seminar offers the benefits of such courses extolled by Katie Walden in her recent post on this site. Aligned with the goals of the Next Gen PhD, the course “[a]ssignments will be aimed at helping students showcase their research in a variety of formats that could include the blog post, the grant proposal, the data visualization, the network analysis, the map, the 3-Minute Thesis, the podcast, the PechaKucha, the illustrated narrative, and the tweet.” The course offers practice and training in genres—other than linear, alphabetic text—that are relevant to humanists but too often ignored in humanities education.

As we have seen in the first semester of The Newly Composed PhD, forms other than the manuscript have been crucial to the scholarship and integral to the career success of the scholars who have visited our symposia. Visconti, Sousanis, and others have extolled the benefits of taking ideas from one semiotic mode into another. All agree that new and important ideas emerge from multimodality. So, in addition to the likelihood that scholars who tweet, speak, draw, code, map, record, and design will be more successful in career searches within and beyond the academy, humanists should consider what important insights are lost when we over-emphasize one modality. The humanist endeavor depends on leaving behind the write only paradigm and engaging the possibilities of write and.

1 thought on “New ways of showing are new ways of knowing”

  1. this would take a systematic overhaul of the humanities side of the university (new training of faculty, new organization of faculty/depts, new standards of assessment/practice, etc) to achieve, any plans on how to organize that at a time when people are re-entrenching themselves in the face of political-economic threats, or does this continue to fall on the students to do in addition to and or against the demands of their schools?

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