Discussing Sheppard, “The Rhetorical Work of Multimedia Production Practices: It’s More Than Just Technical Skill”

This is where we’ll talk about Jennifer Sheppard’s, “The Rhetorical Work of Multimedia Production Practices: It’s More Than Just Technical Skill.” It’s another example of one of those readings where it isn’t quite on-point with what we’re doing in class this term, but it’s as close as I can come to finding readings (appropriate for a graduate level course, that is) where there is serious engagement with the ways in which working with “the tools” and the rhetorical choices we make as writers are very much connected. You’ve got to have some skills both as a rhetorician and as a technologist.

Three quick thoughts for now:

  • The tension between Sheppard and her client scientists about what to include or not include (they didn’t want her to “dumb down” things too much, etc.) happens in these kinds of projects in real settings A LOT.  Tracey posted this as a comment a while back, but this episode of The Oatmeal, “How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell” seems relevant here.  A lot of what Sheppard is describing is sort of a less intense/softer version of this comic.
  • The example she talks about on page 126 (and maybe elsewhere) of developing a web site that is too technology intense to be viewed by the target audience of kids at a middle school rings too true for me. I’ve seen that in classes like “Writing for the World Wide Web” plenty of times in the past, and it seems to me that it is possible in your productions too: shooting video that is beyond the capabilities of wevideo, for example.
  • This reading (and some of the other things we have been talking about lately) makes me wonder if I shouldn’t include an assignment in this class the next time I teach it that is more about the “multimedia presentation” on a web site rather than just limiting it to audio and video. Don’t worry– I’m not going to change any assignments on you right now, that’s me thinking out loud and wondering about next time.

16 thoughts on “Discussing Sheppard, “The Rhetorical Work of Multimedia Production Practices: It’s More Than Just Technical Skill”

  1. Molly McCord

    Sheppard really drives home the importance of considering the target audience when she says that “Once a clear picture of the audience and the project’s communicative goals has been established, then writers/designers can begin to consider how multiple media might be employed to help reach the project’s goals” (124). I think there’s a strong comparison here between the rhetorical choices involved in traditional words-in-a-row writing and those involved in multimedia production. Audience awareness is part and parcel of both writing methods, but there are different kinds of considerations when it comes to tech-based projects. Dr. Krause mentioned the middle school students example that Sheppard mentions on p. 126. She writes, “I did not spend much time considering the technologies and connection speeds to which my intended users, particularly those in elementary and middle school classrooms and libraries, might have access. I did not really consider the potential implications this lack of attention might hold for the audience and for realizing my rhetorical objectives.” So not only does a multimedia writer have to consider a particular target audience demographic, he/she also has to keep in mind the particular context in which the audience will view the content.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer

      I found her discussion of the scientists’ other objectives at the bottom of pg. 124 interesting. I work with research scientists every day, so I’m familiar with this hyper-consciousness of peer opinion.

      And you’re right Molly about her emphasis on understanding the target audience from multiple angles. I also like her personal “learning style” getting involved with the kids’ other areas of interest to get a grasp on what appeals to and engages them – I’m referring to the noisy rollover buttons from the SI for kids page she mentions on 127. While the button sounds may not have suited her original rhetorical intent, they supported the overall purpose of her project by more deeply engaging the kids.

      I this multi-media collaborative work definitely requires some measure of ability to shirk off ego. Everyone wants to think, “Hey, this is a great idea!” but what’s great to the composer may fall on its face with the users. I had that experience with a database I built for work a few years ago. I thought it was genius! :) but my users just couldn’t make it work for them and we had to move on to another type of interface.

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      1. Jonathan Furlette

        I agree with your point here Jennifer; I got the same impression in reading Sheppard’s piece. With the many multimedia options that we have at our disposal, it seems to be sort of trial and error for what is going to work to enhance/encourage learning and progress. Even if the creator originally intended something to be easy and encourage students to try a new way of looking at something, sometimes these “great” new things don’t work out the way they were intended, or fail to suit the original purpose of teaching. It is also interesting to think of the many different kinds of students that we have and how the differentiation in education can benefit or be the detriment to their optimal learning style. We live in a primarily visual culture so that seems to be the way that new applications and programs are tailored; as technology advances it will be interesting to see if this changes or stays the same.

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    2. Tracey Sonntag

      This reminds me of another article I read for a different class; in that piece, the author talks about this awesome multimodal project she designed… for a classroom filled with hovering-at-poverty-level students in a district with no technology funding. :(

      I think it’s really easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles, with lots of sound effects and transitions and whatnot, and forget that you’re actually composing writing. When your message just doesn’t stand out from the medium, it’s a fail all around.

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  2. Danielle

    I think Sheppard does a great job in this article of exemplifying the importance of looking at multimedia composition as more than just learning technical skills. Instead, she argues that rhetorical considerations must come into play.

    It was interesting for me to read this, being on the Professional Communication side of the program, because I already strongly believe that the creation of any kind of document is inherently rhetorical. But, as she explains, people who are not in the field of professional communication do not necessarily see things in the same way. Instead, “some mistakenly see these production-oriented courses as simply a matter of passing on computer skills rather than doing the developmental work that connects to the goals of the English department” (123). I have seen how this can be the case, especially in my earlier undergrad. courses in tech. comm.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Pignotti

      I agree, Danielle. She approaches this subject that is, from what I’m learning in 524, pretty contested…that technical communication is inherently rhetorical. I completely agree with this, but many professionals in the field preference practice over theory (obviously, a balance of both is what is best).

      This also made me think of usability versus usefulness. I had to laugh at her “ozone” example on p. 125 because including the “detailed correctness” overshadowed making the content useful to the audience. If the content is not accessible for them, then they won’t use the site and so then what’s the point of having it in the first place?

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  3. Molly McCord

    I also like that Sheppard encourages multimedia writing instructors to “Include reflective writing assignments at every stage of the production process so that students are encouraged to be more consciously aware of their own tacit practices” (129). This kind of reflective words-in-a-row writing actually reminds me of what we’re doing in this class with our memos. Sheppard seems to recognize how more linear writing also has a place in the development of multimedia projects. So it seems like more traditional ways of writing can accompany new media writing projects to the benefit of the author.

    Reply
    1. Adam

      Molly, I agree with you about the accompanying memos we’ve been doing. In any class where we do something like that I always kind of start them begrudgingly, but by the time I finish usually always walk away with at least one new or clearer insight. I found that quotation really important, too.

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    2. Tracey Sonntag

      Definitely. Sometimes I don’t even realize what I’ve gained from a project until I’ve done the reflective essay / memo. Then it becomes very clear that I’ve learned to balance the medium and message (as above) — or at least, to recognize that I should — and to present my information in a clear and accessible way with whatever tools I’ve chosen to use.

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  4. Adam

    Just building upon what others have already said about the rhetorical aspects of technical or professional communication, I thought this part on page 124 was essential: “Inter-group conflict and difficulty in reaching consensus … ‘most often arises from different interpretations of the rhetorical situation, different concepts of the intended audience, and different purposes.'”

    There’s so much truth to that, I think, that if you can be “the one” who can get people to see the same rhetorical situation, you’re going to be the most important person in the room. I suppose that’s the point or the goal in what we do as technical communicators, really.

    Mostly I bring it up because I think it reiterates what we’re doing with the PSA. Those projects need to reach a consensus as to who it’s talking to. We can’t talk to everyone all at once and expect to be effective. I liked how this tied into the readings from last week.

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    1. Molly McCord

      I agree, Adam. The rhetorical choices involved in the creation of the PSA really have to be based on the target audience. I also relate this back to Friedmann’s chapter on the Seven Steps involved with creating a PSA (determining the target audience is essential).

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      1. Seth Taylor

        Yes, I believe Friedman referred to the “secondary target audience” as important viewers or users as of the content that may not necessarily be part of the primary target audience. In Sheppard’s example it was members of the professional and scientific community who had to be taken into consideration in addition to the 6th-8th graders.

        I also liked that Sheppard thinks of multimodal writing as being supportive of text, enriching it rather than replacing it. In her discussion of the sound effects in the project she says that multimedia capabilities have “the potential to make a text more attractive and ultimately more persuasive to its target readers/users.”

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        1. Jonathan Furlette

          Yes! Sheppard’s writing on multimodal writing stood out to me as well! I agree that there is potential there to make the text (reading or material) more attractive to the user, and there may even be the ability to teach concepts at a more accelerated pace in there somewhere. I may be cynical in thinking so, and I can’t put my finger on it, but to me it seems that we must be losing something in the process. Not that I think that students today have much use for the “Dewey Decimal System,” but there is something to be said about the process of doing your own research rather than just googling everything and using the first few things that pop up. Today’s learning style (in my opinion) is much more up front and in your face and less about finding the answer for yourself.

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    2. Danielle

      Adam, I like that you bring this up because I think this was exemplified in the meeting with our PSA project group tonight. While everybody in our group shared some ideas about what the “communication problem” with the Writing Center is, we all had different ideas regarding what the main problem is, who the intended audience is (people who are embarrassed to come into the UWC or people who think their writing is good enough without going into the UWC?), etc. It took a lot of talking through and negotiation of ideas to come up with our problem and audience alone, probably because (as you quoted), we all have “different interpretations of the rhetorical situation” since we all have had different experiences/background with the UWC.

      I thought, as group, that we did a good job of working through our different ideas and eventually coming to a consensus, but the whole experience really reminded me of the quote you posted.

      Reply
  5. Jonathan Furlette

    I agree with you here Danielle, Adam’s quote was sort of prophetic of our group discussion on what the “communication problem” is in the writing center. Everyone’s experiences are different, so it took a lot of going back and forth over the issues to come up with what we believe to be the major problem that deters students from going to the WC more frequently. Do you think that the education system as a whole would benefit from a more unified educational experience, or does it actually work in the favor of participants of next level education to have varying ideas of what the writing tutoring/counseling/mentoring experience should be like.

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