By Jason Helms, Texas Christian University
Kasey Julian’s “After the Glow: Radium Girls” combines historical research, contemporary political activism, and public rhetorics to argue that unfettered corporatism’s fatal power continues into our own time. In doing so, Julian epitomizes the potential of multimodal assignments to help students discover their voices.
Julian’s video essay is formally simple. Still images punctuated by title cards are combined with musical cues and sound effects. However, she’s clearly become quite adept at making the most from these simple tools. Moving images might distract from her message, but her stills offer the viewer time and space to connect the dots in her argument. The music begins to shape the viewer’s perceptions before they are even aware of it. In her timeline, Julian discusses all that went into the music choices, including the music that was eventually cut. Such editing decisions are typically left out of written essays where students want to fill space as much as possible. Instead, it’s clear that Julian’s video became longer as it went through successive versions and as her research continued.
A sixteen-minute video is anathema for an introductory composition course. The challenge is usually to get the video shorter so that it can retain its emotional effect. Julian manages to maintain interest and impact throughout a lengthy video through her deft rhetorical moves. The essay’s length becomes one of its strengths, allowing her to move from early optimism around radium factories to terror and sadness around the eventual effects of radium poisoning on the women who worked there before finally arriving at outrage around the Flint water crisis. Julian doesn’t have to tell us to be outraged because she has brought us carefully along the path. She does not need to say, “Can you believe this is still happening?” because we are screaming it at our monitors.
Beyond its rhetorical power, Julian’s essay speaks to the power of multimodal assignments more broadly. In her reflection she writes, “Creating this visual essay has given me a creative outlet at a capacity I have never had before.” I’ve seen this in my own students before. It’s easy to hear in this that students feel visual arguments are more creative. I don’t think that’s what’s being said. Instead, students have talked to me about how multimodal assignments give them a sense of ownership over their own ideas. As Julian writes, “This essay has challenged me more than just creatively. I have found my voice as a writer in this essay and been able to showcase what I am capable of.” This sense of ownership and the development of a personal voice can and do often occur in traditional essay assignments. But multimodal assignments put traditional rhetorical concepts into sharper relief. Students begin to care about audience in ways that print essays tend to obscure.
Throughout the video essay, Julian’s sense of personal voice and even accountability are on display. What’s amazing is how few words she has to use to articulate her individuality. Julian’s voice calls loudest not in the choice of image or in the music or even in the title cards but in the silences between the various elements, in the pauses, the cuts, the speed, the sense of coherence and the subtle resistances to that same coherence. Julian speaks not in the brilliant glow of a watch dial but in the dazzling light of a black screen.