Instructor Reflection – Open the Box (10.1)

By Elizabeth Chamberlain, Arkansas State University

I first came across the genre of the visual op-ed in The New York Times; in 2008, columnist Charles Blow began using interesting graphs as the impetus for opinion pieces, blurring the line between data representation and argument in a way that just 12 years later already feels like it’s become de rigueur, the water we swim in. What opinion pages don’t build arguments around visuals? Publications like the data-driven storytelling site The Pudding present arguments in interwoven data visualization and text, and the Nieman Lab predicted that 2019 would be the year of “scrollytelling.” We all acknowledge that increasing prominence of visual argument, the way that images and charts and graphs have become persuasive.

But what we perhaps less often acknowledge is the visual presence of text: Text works on us in literal and symbolic ways, of course, but we also draw meaning from its font, its color, how and when it reaches our eyes. And increasingly, especially in its video presence, text is timed, presented with rhythm and power that mimics the way we speak but remains read on screen, creating some kind of new text-speech hybrid.

Text, thus, can be “choreographed,” as Twitter alum Robin Sloan explains, describing the composition of his essay-in-the-form-of-an-app “Fish,” which invented the genre of the “tap essay”: with each tap of your finger, a new packet of words (or an image, or both) arrives on the screen. Unlike text presented in paragraph form, the tap essay dictates some of the timing of the reading, encouraging readers to slow down and speed up at particular moments, sometimes delivering just a single word at a time. There was briefly a website called Tapestry that collected stories like this, and a few others that similarly rose and fell after its demise. In the Fall 2019 Advanced Composition class in which I met Nikki, we studied the rise of the visual op-ed genre, read “Fish,” and discussed its affordances.

When Nikki told me she wanted to use Sloan’s tap essay form for her visual op-ed about recovering from an abusive relationship, she proposed composing her essay in PowerPoint. I thought a tap essay sounded like a potentially really powerful way of addressing that experience, but I was a little worried at first about her using PowerPoint, concerned that the conventions of the software would lead her toward a bulleted list kind of form. But from the first couple of clicks into Nikki’s presentation of her rough draft during our full-class peer review, I was beyond sold: with each click of the mouse, her words arrived in the classroom space with power and precision, and the transition effects were so carefully, thoughtfully choreographed that I realized I’d undervalued the power of PowerPoint—I had just never seen it used like this, never seen it used so well. Her message, too, left both me and her classmates moved and inspired; she skillfully enacted the argument that writing and artistic expression can be a means of healing from painful experience.

This essay makes an important argument in a compelling form, making novel and creative use of ubiquitous software. And I am delighted that the readers of JUMP+ will, like myself and the rest of Nikki’s Advanced Composition classmates, get to experience her call to open our boxes.

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