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Reading, Writing, Multimedia—and Sisyphus

posted: 4.22.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

During a recent trip out of town, I assigned students an independent study project that combined writing, reading, and multimedia. The assignment reached the students’ inboxes via blackboard during a time when I was away from email and could not respond to questions. My absence from email was purposeful. We are nearing the end of a yearlong program at the end of which students will have earned six full credits toward graduation and/or transfer, including full credit for English 101. The students could handle this task without my supervision.

Little did I dream that the completion of this task would turn into an exercise that would demonstrate the benefits of combining the processes of writing, reading, and multimedia-making.  Yet, because the end of the academic year is fast approaching, I had once more assigned Albert Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Reading, writing, and thinking about Sisyphus had been one of last year’s culminating activities in the Bronx.  This year, I added a multimedia component, and came home to find still more inspiration waiting in my email inbox.

The assignment was to create a prototype for a t-shirt that would describe our yearlong program, using a quote from the Myth of Sisyphus. Here are the specifics.

  • Use a quote from Sisyphus that exemplifies your experience with the program and that would appeal to next year’s first-year students.
  • Choose original graphics (take photographs, create a drawing) that illustrate the quote.
  • Create an electronic file of the prototype and send it to me in an email. You can create the entire prototype online, or you can work by hand and take a photo of the results.
  • Write a brief rationale (3-5 paragraphs) that explains what you chose, why you chose it.

The two designs pictured here present a study in contrasts. Although the designers used virtually the same quote, the illustrations themselves point to very different readings—not only of Sisyphus, but also of the purposes of our yearlong study of writing.  Interestingly, a student working alone crafted the design of the “helping hands.” Five students, working together, constructed the design of a single individual, toiling all alone to raise the rock to the top of the mountain.

In class discussion, we focused on the rhetorical situation of this assignment. By combining reading, writing, and multimedia, these writers needed to address the incoming class of 2018; that is, new students who would be part of Fall 2014’s new cohort for this year-long writing program. We discussed the very different messages that each graphic would send to that audience, the first of group support and accomplishment, the second of individual toil and hard work.  We wondered about the impact of shortening the quote. Did Sisyphus have help in his achievement, as the “helping hands” graphic implied, or did he indeed toil all alone?

The writers focused on “achievement” as a key word. Some writers read the “helping hands” as the hands that would greet them at graduation for the achievement of earning their degree. Other writers were concerned about the graphic of the second design. Would the image of Sisyphus struggling alone with his burden provoke too much anxiety for new students? Or would that image offer new students an immediate message of the work that would be required to succeed in the writing program? Or would both of these graphics, presented together, offer new students a more balanced picture of their forthcoming endeavors?

We had no definitive answers that day. Yet, as a Basic Writing teacher/scholar, I garnered new insights from observing these writers interact with The Myth of Sisyphus. I have always believed that reading and writing are inseparable and inextricably linked, each generative of the other. I had initially attempted to introduce multimedia as an add-on to reading and writing, with limited results. That day, I learned that multimedia also must become woven into the processes of reading and writing. Our twenty-first-century lives demand it, and our students deserve nothing less.

At the same time, I came to these insights after re-reading a text that was first published in the 1940s and that I had first encountered in the 1970s. Sisyphus had once more helped me to grasp the twenty-first-century world through an older and more deeply familiar context.

For my students had written: “It is an endless cycle to improve one’s self until death and others after will stand on your shoulders and further the improvement. This cycle is eternal.” And I felt, at last, that I had reached again that moment in the cycle of which Camus writes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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