Is Composing with Video “Composition”?

How does composing-with-video connect to the writing our students do in class? Given that the hours we as teachers have to spend in and out of the classroom are finite, what does composing-with-video replace?

These are the types of questions that Traci Gardner (@tengrrl) responds to in her “Justification for Composing with Video” entry on the Teaching in the 21st Century Bedford Bits blog. Her reflections, arguments, and motivations are smart and thoughtful. She makes a few particular points that I wanted to consider in terms of my own pedagogy.

First, she writes: “my definition of composition includes more than just putting words on paper or screens. I think of composition more broadly, as something that can include visual and aural components.” It’s no secret that “composition” has a long and complicated history. (much like writing, reading, literacy, etc.) As such, I think each rhetoric/composition/writing teacher faces, at the heart of his/her pedagogy, the task of cobbling together some working definition of key terms at the heart of our discipline. An idiosyncratic lexicon. Necessarily, these foundational-type terms are often provisional, negotiated, and fluid.

For instance, when Gardner defines composition as “something that can include visual and aural components,” I agree with her within the terms she sets. But so often our disciplinary terms start to mesh together and their boundaries expand in unpredictable ways. That can be great. But it can also have its pitfalls. One of Gardner’s operative words is “composition.” To tell you the truth, I rather loathe this word. (And of course I mean no offense to Gardner; it’s possibly the most important word in our discipline.) By Gardner’s definition, the term is pretty-much medium-independent. If composition “can include visual and aural components” (which I whole-heartedly agree that it can) then our discipline becomes one of arrangement, invention, and delivery. Within Gardner’s logic, myriad media could be included within the scope of composition: Painting. Music. Architecture. Scholarship. Public speaking. Comic books. Websites. Coding languages. Dance. Etc.

I have no intention of suggesting that Gardner’s definition of composition is wrong or problematic. It’s perfectly reasonable and practical. I’m pretty sure we could make the same observations about many of our definitions of composition. And for that matter, I’m quite sure it would be a terrible idea (and impossible) to get people to “agree” on a definition for composition.

Gardner quotes a comment on her post which effectively represents a certain type of resistance that many composition instructors have for expanding the definition of composition. The comment reframes Gardner’s discussion of composition in terms of writing. Which leads us to the question that Gardner’s trying to address: is video composition a form or writing? Personally, I’m quite sure it is, but here again, it depends on personal/idiosyncratic definitions of both composition and writing.

The question is, what separates our discipline from painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, music, etc? I don’t think it can be “composition” is a broad sense, since we seem to share a basic definition across all of these disciplines, as well as others. For me, it comes down to medium and semiotics. Traditionally, we’ve defined the medium of our discipline as paper-and-ink, and we’ve focused primarily on alphabetic prose as our primary semiotic system. And they’ve always been influx as texts have increasing included visual and aural elements. Traditionally visual and aural texts such as videos, film, and musical texts have increasingly incorporated alphabetic elements. So much so that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assign texts to the purview of one discipline or another.

I guess what I’m getting at is that, as a discipline, I think we have two dominant options from which to choose a way forward. The first is to adhere to an increasingly expanding definition of “composition.” But if we’re to remain honest with ourselves about what, exactly, those disciplinary concerns might encompass, we’ll likely find ourselves merely an element of most other disciplines. In other words, composition as a separate discipline would disintegrate.

On the other hand, we might work to differentiate ourselves (at least our fundamental concerns) from other disciplines. But I think the only way to do that is to drop the term “composition” in favor of a term narrowing the scope or our concerns. The problem is that most of the terms that come to mind are problematic in some of the same ways as “composition.” Rhetoric. Argument. Writing. Communication.

Something tells me we don’t yet have the right word. Something like “inscription.” Would that be unsettling. The department of Rhetoric and Inscription. Yeah, now that I’ve written that last sentence, I can see how utterly ridiculous it sounds. Partly because it’s foreign to me. But on more anxious note, I wonder it it’s because I have a hard time pointing to elements of our discipline upon which most of us agree AND which have enough staying power to gird a discipline.