Blog Post

14. Teaching Composition using Digital Technologies: the Intro Graphic Assignment

*This blog was written as part of "The Pedagogy Project" by HASTAC scholars.

As a teacher of ESL, one of my main personal goals is to learn about my students and their interests early in the semester so I can gain a sense of the composition of my classes. By doing so, I feel as if I am better prepared to take advantage of context when teaching so that when opportunities to relate to my students arise, I am able to capitalize and connect. This interest combines with my desire to expose students to new technologies and take advantage of material access to computer labs associated with enrollment in my class at Washington State University, creating the inspiration for the assignment detailed below, the “Intro Graphic.”


At my institution, we are fortunate to have an English department computer lab reserved for students enrolled in an English-listed course offering. The lab has around 80 Macs and each one has a wide range of programs installed on it. Since Adobe programs are so expensive for individuals to purchase and are often excessive for someone not working actively in a design field, I feel like directing my students towards these programs in WSU’s computer lab early in the semester allows students to 1) realize they have access to these programs for a semester’s worth of time; 2) learn how to use the computers available in the lab; 3) relax a bit right from the start of the semester by focusing on something other than traditional words on paper communication; and 4) think of composition beyond the essay to the point where they actually understand composition for its most basic definition, one where it is understood as the combination of things to make up a whole.


The “Intro Graphic” assignment is the first major work in my class at the beginning of the semester and starts the semester by having students meet in the computer lab for 2-3 class periods over a 5-6 class stretch of time. Time in the lab is spent making sure each student is able to access the needed programs and providing basic instruction on operating and navigating the interfaces. For this assignment, students are shown Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, with the basic differences among them explained. Typically, I tell students that Photoshop is best used for adjusting photos they have, Illustrator is best for combining words and shapes and for tracing images, and InDesign is good for creating professionally inspired publications of a wide variety. The final assignment is submitted as a packaged InDesign file that makes use of the wonderful layout tools and comparatively intuitive interface (compared to the other two, even though there is major overlap among the three) of InDesign.


The basic description of this assignment is that students should use a minimum of 25 words of text combined with at least one shape and at least one contrasting color outside of black and white, and at least one image. They create a web-based document in InDesign, which I walk them through in the lab, and they use that canvass to construct a single page that introduces some information they feel comfortable sharing with me about themselves. They can introduce themselves broadly or choose to focus on an aspect of who they are that they wish to explain more thoroughly. They also must include a separate Word document that has a 100+ word explanation of choices and the process they went through to create their graphic. To earn 100%, I tell students that they must exceed the minimum requirements as far as what must be included and do so in a way that shows an awareness of basic principles of design, such as an awareness of contrast, the use of repetition, effective alignment, and meaningful organization that reflects relational values within the composition.


To prepare students for this assignment, I explain how I’d like for them to understand composition and the combination of meaningful things to create the most effective understanding for an audience of the message wishing to be conveyed. I show students the basic tools of Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign and explain how some of the tools work the same and some different, with an extended focus on the function of layers in the three programs and the importation of images into each. Then I leave it up to students to work for a portion of the time while we are in the lab on their own so they can ask questions as they arise. Some of the main questions have to do with finding the tools one would expect to be able to control when doing different things. An example would be how to adjust text and where to find the options, as those unfamiliar with these programs will often be overwhelmed by all of the icons and options.


My opinion, after using this assignment for two semesters, is that it is a good way for me to get to know students and a good way to introduce students to my university’s computer resources. I think the main limitation of my assignment so far is that I teach a writing class, so I can’t devote more than two weeks at the beginning of the semester to this project before I have to quickly move on to traditional written composition teaching. Ultimately, the most important part of this assignment seems to be the reflective portion where students explain their choices. This part always helps me understand where students stand as writers as an initial gauge because there is little chance students would plagiarize this explanation because it is so low stakes and is based off of their opinion of a document they personally created.


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