UnAvailable Designs: Remixing Lynda Barry in the FYC Classroom

This is the text of my presentation to CCCC11, 8 April 2011, in Atlanta, GA. My fellow panel members were Dale Jacobs (Univ of Windsor) and Andre Buchenot (IUPUI). As I’m mostly a reader (gasp!) when it comes to presentations, the text below reflects almost perfectly what I said. I’ve also pasted my Prezi at the bottom of this page.

In this presentation, I will propose that Lynda Barry’s comic “Common Scents” provides an opportunity for students to engage with multimodal rhetoric in a manner that introduces them to an expanded set of rhetorical strategies and possible ethical perspectives. I will then detail a sequence of in-class activities that I have successfully used in the first year composition classroom to facilitate those aforementioned opportunities.

Why Comics?

[I] call for a “new medium-specificity, one based on what is specific to a work or practice… a new materials-ism.. [in] response to attempts to assign a single aesthetic to ‘the digital’ (information aesthetics, code)” [or, in our case here, the products of multimodal production.]

– Sean Cubitt

“An exclusive emphasis on digital literacies is not what most advocates of technology-rich composition advocate. Such an emphasis would limit students’ access to other modes of expression.”

-from the NCTE’s Strategic Policy Goals on Multimodal Literacies and Technology

Many, if not most, of our classrooms are influenced by the constraints of the printed page. Thus, when we seek to explore multimodal pedagogy, we are subsequently limited. These limits apply to both multimodal analysis and multimodal production, though unequally so.

Yes; most of us may have or can arrange to have digital networked projector technology in our classrooms, so we can explore animations, games, videos, and other multimodal communications from a single source–or ask our students to explore these on their own time with their own technology, in front of their own home computers or digital media devices. But, if we project multimodal communications for mass viewing, we often limit individual students interaction with the object of analysis; for instance, students don’t have the agency to individually explore games and interactive animations, they can’t pause or replay sections of a video.  (Displaying one object for all is also potentially boring, as you might know if you’ve watched someone else play a game like Animal Crossing). If we remove the object of analysis from the classroom, we limit our ability to interact simultaneously with both student and object; we can’t facilitate more critical understandings for ourselves and individual students. It’s harder to ask and answer questions when those texts aren’t in our students’ hands.

These limits are even more severe when it comes to production. Chances are we (both teachers and students) are not well versed in composing with Flash, even if we had wide access to the application (which most of us likely do not). Though, the lure of simplistic notions of “digital nativism” might try to convince us otherwise, there are barriers to the tools required to produce animations, videos, games, and other digital multimodal compositions.

Comics, however, make many of these limitations less imposing. We can distribute them widely with little technological barrier: all we need is a standard office tool, the copy machine, or a scanner and printer. Our students are familiar with them; they’re likely to have picked up the comics section in a newspaper or a comic book–or maybe even have had a piece of Bazooka bubble gum.  They are usually produced with pen and paper, not through more complex code-based or GUI-based design/production software, such as Illustrator, InDesign, or Photoshop–common tools used for producing a typical infographic.

In a sense, comics are available and accessible.

Nevertheless, if you were to ask me if I can draw comics, my immediate reaction would be  “no”–because I can’t draw comics well. Just because I can take pen to paper and make a stick figure doesn’t mean I think I “can” produce a comic. And many of my students have had the same reaction. Just because the tools are familiar doesn’t mean that we feel that producing comics is necessarily “available” or “accessible” to us. But, even giving in to those self-imposed limitations does not preclude us from producing comics in the classroom.

One way of overcoming this resistance to multimodal production is to employ the  remix. And by using the remix to produce comics, students can use visual rhetorical analysis to inform their remix design choices.

And it is with a notion of the “available” and the “accessible” that I would like to turn to the pedagogical framework for this series of activities: the New London Group’s “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies.”

In the introductory chapter to their 2000 book “Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures,” the New London Group calls for a multimodal literacy pedagogy that addresses the  “burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” in order “to account for the context of our culturally and linguistically diverse and increasingly globalised socieities” (9).  We can imagine that the New London Group may have had the expanding forms of what we commonly think of as “new media” in mind, as they specifically link this growth to the digital technologies of our contemporary media ecology. However, comics–with their “old media” materiality and a long history of visual narrative–have a very specific relevance here, due to a need for readers and producers of comics to engage with concepts of visual literacy. This is particularly evident when we consider the New London Group’s focus on a multiliteracy pedagogy that calls for on an “understanding and competent control of representational forms that are becoming increasingly significant in the overall communications environment, such as visual images and their relationship to the written word” (9).

The New London Groups pedagogy is distilled into a three step process for composing:  Available Designs, Designing, and The Redesigned. In this process, composers analyze the rhetorical designs they have experienced across multiple modes, media, and contexts. Many Design Elements are part of these Available Designs: visual, linguistic, as well as spatial, audio, and gestural. These become the resources from which they create their own composition, an act of remixing and repurposing, the Redesigned product an amalgam of Available Designs. Upon composition and dissemination, The Redesigned becomes accessible as another Available Design. In the view of the New London Group, this is a total, self-sustaining system.

The rationale for the necessity of this multiliteracy pedagogy is based on the New London Group’s view of education’s “fundamental purpose [to] ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, and economic life” (9). These are, appropriately, high stakes and, to return to a term, they are also high stakes of accessibility. How we are able to access, through participation, those spheres of life.

These lives are shaped by several factors. As someone who recently changed from being a graduate teaching assistant at an institution that was specifically committed to facilitating a heightened engagement with community and public life to being faculty at a technical college more focused on training workers, my first focus is on our economic lives.  According to the New London Group, our work lives are newly shaped by “fast capitalism,” wherein the Fordist “vertical chains of command are replaced by the horizontal relationships of teamwork” (11). Many of our work lives are shaped by “markets centered on change, flexibility, quality, and distinctive niches” (10).

Our public and community lives are shaped by similarly related forces. The technologies and structures that enable and are created by our changing economic lives shape a public life in which:

“Local diversity and global connectedness… mean that the most important skill students need to learn is to negotiate regional, ethnic, or class-based dialectics; variations in register that occur according to social context; hybrid cross-cultural discourses; the code switching often to be found within a text among different languages, dialects, or registers; different visual and iconic meanings; and variations in the gestural relationship among people, language, and material objects” (14).

I’m interested in how the production and analysis of comics can help us to facilitate one, or some, or all of these negotiations within our students. And, it turns out, I find that Lynda Barry’s “Common Scents” provides an opportunity to do this.

One way of thinking about these various negotiations is through difference: because we experience difference, we must negotiate. And indeed, the New London Group sees literacy pedagogy as a “neutral arbiter of difference,” however impossible achieving that neutrality might be (15). In our work lives, we are warned that assimilation–a deferential act of abandoning difference–to hegemonic corporate culture perpetuates the status quo superstructure. If we are to gain access to this work life on at least some of our own terms, we must negotiate in an inclusive manner.

Difference and access also plays into their pedagogy in another, paradoxical manner: the difference of accessibility to Available Designs. Though they are specifically concerned with the role of critical engagement of difference in these situated life contexts, this negotiation, however, fails to explicitly critique the limits of what designs are in fact available to composers in this Available Designs-Designing-The Redesigned system of production.

In “Re-Visions: Rethinking Joseph Janangelo’s ‘Joseph Cornell and the Artistry of Composing Persuasive Hypertexts,’” Anne Frances Wysocki does interrogate this paradox of accessibility to Available Designs.  She does this through the notion of Unavailable Designs as a complementary category to Available Designs. These Unavailable Designs are the compositions that are foreign, unknown to us as readers and composers: the Designs that we have not yet accessed or encountered. In the context of Wysocki’s article, Unavailable Designs are described as useful tools for challenging a preference for coherence as a driving principle in academic texts, a preference that might be replaced by, say, a concern for ethics.  Unavailable Designs are “what is kept from discourse, usually, by being outside the range of strategies and gestures that come immediately to mind when we start designing texts” (285-6).

While they do not account for Unavailable Designs, this focus on ethics is inline, I think, with the New London Group’s focus on the negotiation of difference. In a similar fashion in Wysocki’s text, this negotiation of alternate ethics and alternate forms for argumentation is based on difference: “…the ability to suss out Unavailable Designs can help us find strategies for making new arguments and making visible otherwise hidden or denied positions…” (287). As has been previously discussed, the New London Group explicitly calls for this exact visibility; but the procedural rhetoric of the Available Designs-Designing-The Redesigned as a closed self-propagating system works against this negotiation of alternate possibilities. Introducing Unavailable Designs into our classrooms can reopen this system in a productive manner, facilitating “new ethical potentials” (287).

To get a better understanding of what Unavailable Designs look like, I’d like to let the words of Anne Frances Wysocki briefly introduce Lynda Barry’s “Common Scents.” After mentioning a few examples from Western visual art, such as the bricolage works of Braque and Picasso that challenged then-dominant ways of viewing, “Common Scents” is noted as a potential composition that can serve as an Unavailable Design.

“Lynda Barry has made sly, humorous, and compelling arguments, through her childishly drawn comics, about the smells of our homes, about how we judge the differences of others while ignoring our own markedness” (186).

With this potential in mind, I will now turn to a sequence of in-class activities that seek to bring these differences to the fore.

The Activity

I use this sequence of activities to introduce students to “Common Scents.” The overarching goal of these is to help students write an interpretative essay of the comic through multimodal rhetorical analysis. This is the first experience with Lynda Barry and, for many, their first time they have critically engaged with comics in the classroom.

All of these activities take place in small groups (3-5) students. This is for at least two reason. The first is to embody both the structures and dynamics of teams in economic life predicated by fast capitalism and small and reconfigurable communities. The second is to create a space for several unique conversations that themselves negotiate the difference between expectations in Common Scents and in the individual contexts and ethics of each student.


The first activity begins with the distribution of single pages from Common Scents, two panels per page. As you can see on the screen, these aren’t normal pages: they have been digitally altered to remove the text. (narrative, dialogue, internal monologue) I ask students to apply previous in-class conversations on visual rhetoric to these panels, and ask for detailed descriptions of everything they see in the panels.

To explain this choice, I want to turn to the notion of Abstraction and “Amplification through Simplification” from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics as a framework:

“when we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details.” (30)

Abstraction here is two-fold: removal of text creates abstracted context, students do know how to place the visual choices in CS in relation to what is being said about and by the characters; removal of other panels also abstracts how these two panels fit into a larger narrative.

Students focus on what is emphasized by only the isolated visual rhetorical choices. Artificial, but productive in getting students to look past the dominance of linguistic rhetoric of having their analyses and interpretations being dominantly steered by the words on the page;

From this activity, there are many observations that create conversations on difference: gender norms through androgyny of the main character; ethos of ugliness; representation of body image; visible cultural differences through skin tones; page color, color palette;


Using what visual choices noted in the first part, students compose text that they imagine might fit the visual context. This imperative itself is a careful negotiation.

Specifically advised not to write what has been removed, but what might be there based on visual choices. Strict use of available design, in that they are asked to produce based upon what they see in front of them and their own individual contexts. Their textual composition reflect a range of ways of knowing the visuals created by Barry. They frequently reflect ideas about audience: “poorly” or childishly drawn people are reflected in text geared towards a comic written for children; the focus on smells and overtly smelly objects within the comic genre leads to text that seeks to be humorous at the expense of seriousness–a choice that the full text later complicates.


Add text to the remaining pages and


order the frames into a narrative (the focus on narrative production perhaps reveals that most of my training is in creative writing…)

This step encourages students to use the spatial positioning of scenes as clues, what are bodies doing and how are they positioned in relation to others; students also tend to use this visible body language as emotional markers to establish the tone of their remix composition;

The big benefit of this remix: allows them to experience logos in a way that a single mode (linguistic) cannot, see organization as dynamic (break from the dominance of five paragraph form); explore uses of analepsis/prolepsis in narrative composition.


Engage Common Scents in its published design

When we get there, students see Barry’s argument in a multimodal manner. Their essays feature writing not only about visual choices but, more importantly, how those individual visual choices interrelate to linguistic choices–and how those together form a unique argument.

Their writings also engage with expectations of form and genre convention, aspects specifically marked by Wysocki’s Unavailable Designs. Some oft-occuring examples from student texts include: that the comic looks like its by/for children and has children but it is not for children, as it engages with difficult concepts of racism, judgement, how our bodies and smells relate to others–sometimes through implied explicit language masked by linguistic collusion (choices and audience and how that informs purpose); a favorite is one that presents a nuanced understanding of cultural difference by drawing distinctions between metaphors of mixing: the “tossed salad” as opposed to “melting pot.”


In these exercises I use production as a tool for analysis. The multiple exploration of difference has lead to new potentials in multiple literacies and ethics–both for me and for my students. It has also lead to more nuanced multimodal rhetorical analyses. While the remix is useful, so is the production of comics by drawing them by hand, as my colleagues have so eloquently argued. One way in which I see a reconfigured relationship between analysis and production stemming from the activities I’ve talked about here is to use the production of comics as a personal reflective tool in response to the remix process of analysis. Students might explicitly draw and write their own ethics into comics that explore the role of Unavailable Designs in their own composition process, how expectations of form and genre and ethics might affect both us and others. This future consideration of the role of production and analysis by means of comics in my classroom can hopefully live up to the following assertion:

“It is only when all of us do not expect texts only and ever to reproduce our values, only and ever to match our expectations, that we can learn from unexpected texts how to live together in changing times with people who are not just like us.” (Wysocki 287)

Thank you.


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