Breathing New Life into an Old Genre
by Christine Denecker
The persuasive essay remains a standard composition requirement on most college campuses. However, a significant shift occurs when students are afforded the opportunity to approach traditional assignments (such as that standard persuasive essay) equipped with tools and skills beyond the alphabetic. Authors Elizabeth Meyer and Rachel Hall demonstrate that shift in their “Stop Cyber Bullying” project which melds visuals, videos, textual information, music, and hyperlinks in a piece that informs, persuades, and reaches an authentic audience. In other words, their work breathes new life into an old genre.
As a writing instructor with over twenty years of classroom experience, I have taught my share of persuasive essays and have pointed out to students the importance of balancing claims and evidence as well as pathos, logos, and ethos in these works. Still, as each year passes and as my own experience with and knowledge of multimodal composition has grown, I have seen less and less of a “fit” for the traditional persuasive essay in my own classroom. Sure, students mechanically crank out the work and some of them do it very well, but without an authentic audience beyond the classroom, the persuasive essay seems little more than an exercise . . . an old, worn-out hoop.
In “Accumulating Literacy,’ Deborah Brandt writes that the “holding on or holding over of older literacies is actually an integral part of the way that one generation passes on the fruits of its education to subsequent generations . . . “ (659), and it is fair to say that holding onto the persuasive essay requirement continues to have merit. With that said, though, assignments such as Meyer’s and Hall’s suggest that today’s students need not necessarily craft “essays that look much the same as those produced by their parents and grandparents” (Takayoshi and Selfe 2). And the work they create need not necessarily remain within classroom walls; it has the potential to reach an actual, authentic audience beyond themselves, their classmates, and their instructor.
In place of the traditional persuasive essay form, the website created by Meyer and Hall provides a multi-layered approach to persuasive writing. From the pathos and ethos of the visuals, music, and statistics in the opening video to the evidence inherent in the stories of victims Megan Meier, Ryan Halligan, and Amanda Todd, the authors build exigency regarding the problem of cyber-bullying. Additional layers of statistical evidence as well as advice for parents and teachers help to clarify the audience for the piece, and the direct links to other websites allow readers to dig more deeply into the aspects of the problem that interest them most. Through this multi-layered approach, Meyer and Hall subvert the typical linear construction of a persuasive essay with its expected introduction, body, and conclusion. Instead, they utilize, to borrow from Elizabeth Daley, “the best language for the task at hand” (38), which “may be one or more kinds of multimedia” (38).
Specifically, it is Meyer’s and Hall’s juxtaposition of the visual (pictures of cyber-bullying victims and websites in their honor) with text of the victims’ stories against pie-charts of statistics that creates a more powerful persuasion than words alone on a page might do. Furthermore, the layering inherent in the piece pushes the notion of engagement beyond that of simply engaging an audience. Certainly, these authors, themselves, were engaged in “opportunities to extend their thinking about both conventional and unconventional forms of discourse” (Hess 31) as they crafted their project.
And that type of engagement has a ripple effect. As Jody Shipka argues, “ . . . tool-equipped persons create academic texts, and . . . those persons and the texts they create are simultaneously shaped by and provide shape for the institutions and cultures in which (or from which, about which) they write” (53). So in creating multi-layered persuasive pieces such as “Stop Cyber Bullying,” students who utilize and build their technological and rhetorical “tools” are not only shaping an argument, they are also shaping themselves as thinkers and doers and writers. Similarly, they are shaping the thoughts of an audience. Beyond that, they are shaping what it means to write a persuasive essay—reaching an audience they hadn’t even intended to reach.
In essence, they are among those breathing new life into an old genre.
Brandt, Deborah. “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the Twentieth Century.” College English 57.6 (October 1993): 649-667.
Daley, Elizabeth. “Expanding the Concept of Literacy.” Educause (March/April 2003): 33-40.
Hess, Mickey. “Composing Multimodal Assignments.” Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. Ed. Cynthia Selfe. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press. 2007.
Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia Selfe. “Thinking About Multimodality.” Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. Ed. Cynthia Selfe. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press. 2007.