Building the New Babel by the Digital: Cultivating Critical Thinking & Improve Intercultural Literacy through Composition Assignments


My meditation on this image is that I will copy another big circle. Two circles will have an intersection in which people share two psychological and personal identities should locate. Likewise, the circles can be more than two. I want to use the model I developed in my future dissertation.


Just how powerful the technology God is! The Godly hands are doing a magic on the globe. Beams of light shine during the action.


I can see that the designer of this visual wants to focus the world in this man’s eyes, who represent the entire human being. The human face of the world also implies that communication is alive and dynamic like a human being. I am not sure whether the designer want also to say that each nation is different, but equal, for the two eyes should be the same. What ideas you can think of?

(Intellectual Property rights belongs to the original productor of the above images)


I have been teaching College English to non-English major freshmen and Selected Readings of British and American Literature to English majors who are in their third or fourth year, in this assignment design I have used my old teaching materials and textbooks, as well as the new pedagogical theories and practices I learned here from 8900 Computer and Composition.

The “Selected Readings of British and American Literature” class meet three times a week, and two hours each time. The “College English” class meet twice every week, and two hours each time. Fall semester starts at the end of August and ends at the end of January. Winter semester starts at the end of February, and ends at mid-July.

The British and American Literature course is assigned a classroom where the instructor and the students are equipped with desk top computers. Students’ population is usually around 20. The instructor’s computer has a supervision and teaching operation system that is similar to what we have here in the 8900 classroom.

The College English course classroom, due to the overflow of the students population, usually 60-100, has only one computer for the teacher. The computer is disconnected from the internet, and there is a big screen and a projector that I use often to play off-line multimedia products such as listening comprehension exercises affiliated to the textbook and the exercise book, movie, and music for students. The operation board beside the computer also allow me to play tapes, use microphone, and to record anything I want.

About eight louder speakers equipped along the upper walls of the classroom helps the students to listen to whatever I play or say on the stage. Classrooms have no access to the internet. Students have mp3, mp4, mp5, cellphones, digital cameras, PC of their own, and so on.

Students come from sharply different living background. The English major students usually come from a well-off family background that have provided them with any device they need to access English learning resources. However, a few of them with rural living background have problems with listening, speaking, and even reading comprehension. I have to answer frequently their questions on how to deal with those issues.

Most of the freshmen students are from rural area, which limit their listening comprehension ability and their oral ability. Their English level is relatively speaking, lower than students from big cities. I have to balance what I teach in the classroom so that everyone get what they want. However, the focus of my teaching has always been how to encourage them to learn English while at least one half of them did not enjoy the subject at all due to former teacher’s teaching attitude, high school teaching condition in rural area, lack of motivation and confidence in learning English.

I want to show my students how I learned here and I want them to write in English on their already exist or new blogs about whatever topics we discuss in class. They can then draw ideas from their weekly readings for their final projects. I will persuade them to do multimodal composition. I will use relatively free rubrics as long as their composition is creative and show their sense of social and individual concern, especially their critical thinking. I want to help them to become responsible and critical citizens.

Summary of the Project

The project, using the readings from and pedagogical example of English 8900 Computer and Composition taught by Dr. Mary Hocks, frames three assignments that I designed for my students in China. Through a whole semester’s reading on digital literacy, multimodal composition, digital divide, digital identity, and related issues in the United States, I arrived a conclusion that the teaching of English in my university and similar university classrooms in China has to keep up with the pace of the United States in the following five aspects:

1. Classrooms and dormitories must have access to the internet no matter what will cost in the first stage of doing it;

2. Instructors’ mindset of the useless or diverging nature of technology and new media must be changed in classroom practices; Student-centered pedagogies should not only be in the publications, but be carried out in real classroom practices, and teachers should learn to put aside their dignity when students know better than themselves;

4. National and university fund of supporting science and technology majors and Professors to go abroad should become a little bit balanced to disciplines of social sciences, such as Philosophy, Sociology, Law, and English;

5. Teacher training that is limited to one year or two year exchange programs should be extended to degree programs so that teachers will have a genuine grasp of foreign pedagogies and practices.

Due to the lack of attention in the above mentioned aspects, Chinese students’ English level cannot be truly upgraded because their horizon is limited. Most of Chinese students going abroad are science and technology majors who has little training in critical thinking. To prevent the whole student population to become working machines, I have been suggesting students to think critically about everything in their life, and to become socially concerned and a real world citizen.

Owing to my fortunate opportunity here in the States, I learned a lot in the advanced and even avant-garde theories and pedagogies to teach students how to become engaged citizens and writers with critical thinking. Therefore, I want to propose a new teaching method that will be extremely influential to my university’s English teaching classrooms.

The first two assignments are designed for students who are in the third year or fourth year in the English department. They are the mid-term and final project of the mandatory course for English majors: “Selected Readings of British and American Literature.” For the mid-term, students will have to do a CV that is both in print and digital form. For the final, they can pick up any piece of British and American literature or movie adaptation of literature to compose their final paper or multimodal project. Project must embrace literary theory, contemporary application, real life inspiration, social concern, intercultural thoughts, and so on.

The last assignment is a final project assignment designed for the mandatory College English course. Target students are freshmen who are non-English majors. Students are asked to choose one option of their own interest. Project must embrace social and environmental problems, ways to solve them, and so on.

Rationale of the Assignments

General Rationale

From the Biblical reference of Babel building to the modern and postmodern attempts of communication, human beings has never stopped seeking for spiritual and communicable consensus. However, geographic locations and various elements around the globe hinder human beings from sharing local culture and ways of communication. The advent of the internet and thereafter the digital era has removed, to a large extent, the shackles of cultural communication barriers in terms of location and access. As the demographic changes, globalization requires unprecedented intercultural and multicultural literacy.

Jack Lule in Globalization & Media: Global Village of Babel explains how China’s online forum has become a representative example in globalization and digitization, and how US-China relations is influencing Chinese people’s ideas on politics, economy, and culture(136-139). Cultural convergence that is pushed forward by digital and economic globalization provides a global background where no culture alone can go any further without understanding of other cultures. English pedagogies in China’s underdeveloped regions have to be enhanced to ensure students’ intercultural and multimodal literacies.

Rationale of Digital Literacy and Multimodal Composition

“CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments” and many other authoritative pieces in the composition field make it clear that we have to teach our students how to express their ideas through new technologies and new media. The multimodal composition trend is irreversible and urgent for me because China has such a long way to go in terms of such pedagogical practices. I wish I can do my little contribution to the future of my homeland through teaching.

I teach English as a foreign language to Chinese students, and I am also a non-native speaker. Living in a developing country like China, my urgent task is to cultivate students’ critical thinking and a sense of world citizen by teaching them foreign culture through language learning. More importantly, I want to raise students’ awareness of the similarities of human beings no matter which country they are from. Students, during and after taking my courses, should feel it an urge to make changes in the society, to make China a better place to live in. I strongly believe that the task of building the new Babel lies in the hands of instructors and students. And I have been using movies and music to share foreign culture with students, but I realized that the digital can be used in such a way for rhetoric and composition’s purpose. I

Kathleen Blake Yancey’s “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” is to embrace multi-literacies that have been enabled by digital revolution. She supports a new definition of composition in this new world permitted with multi-literacies. She suspects school education’s function on composition because her own experience is one that proves the unfruitfulness of classroom writing assignments(297-299). According to her, in the future print and the digital technologies will increasingly intertwine to enable multi-genres(307). Yancey lists three changes in our field: “Develop a new curriculum; revisit and revise writing-across-the-curriculum efforts; and develop a major in composition and rhetoric”(308). She claims that the broadened arena of rhetoric and composition embraces mani-fold writing possibilities rather than compartmenting knowledge(308). Her model of composition: “Circulation of composition, cannons of rhetoric, deicity of technology”(311-312) because they easily help us on an epistemology that both inherit the canons and corporate technological advantages. Peer review is important to our composition process because students are the living literature. Her original citation is “on-going compositions”(312). Her idea of “writers use technology rhetorically” is what should be paid attention to in composition classrooms. She incorporate other evidences such as “new composition includes rhetoric and is about literacy”(320) to elaborate that our challenge of multi-literacies, expertise with technologies, and so on demand us to recognize the intertextuality between school education and social education both in the print and on the screen(320). Such an unprecedented cross-disciplinary possibility for teachers, students, and other people alike pushes us to learn more and try to adapt the changes rather than dreaming to reverse history. When she mentions “global, educational, technological changes” at the end of her paper(321), I feel huge pressure as a reader although I know what I should do. What I should do is to help my students in China to keep up with the pace of the technological trend of electracy.

Mary Hocks’ new definition of composition emphasizes contemporary rhetorical practices in both texts and visuals with the rhetorical tradition of the rhetor and the audience(629-630). With a postmodern perspective of the intertextuality between texts and visuals, I cannot agree more with her statement that texts and visuals are inseparable in multimedia composition, which requires a new definition of writing rather than holding fast to the old definition of verbal composition(630). She gives the reason why some of instructors still cannot accept the new notion of multimodal composition that contains both texts and visuals. This is also the reason why most of the English instructors in China cannot accept digital expression of ideas. Pedagogy must be changed or else China will continue to lag behind the rest of the world. Hock’s call for attention in multi-modalities such as touch and sound is of vital importance to any analysis of digital rhetoric(631).

The postmodernist trend of collage, play, simulation, and the like requires us to accept a pluralism that is unprecedented and increasingly diverse. Hocks’ paper shows us how to combine visuals and texts and how to teach multimodal composition in classrooms. Her own course “8900 Computer and Composition” is an effective course that will help us to “do, rather than to tell.”

“Prosumer Approaches—Postmodern Reflections on Learning, Teaching, Identities, and Living” shows how powerful the new media can be in the writing classroom and also in the society as a whole.  Anderson’s “prosumer” approach in composition is such a creative piece that inspires me to incorporate this idea of multimodal composition in my classrooms. I have seen a lot of similar things in Chinese, but I realized that this creativity and multi-layered composition can be used in my English writing assignments because in such a way I can develop Chinese students’ critical thinking by asking them to do a short video. The Chinese culture and teacher-centered method are severely hindering students’ critical thinking. Writing’s function can be strengthened through using of videos and the like. The multi-modal composition also brings forth the issue of new media literacies, which in this post-print era are quite an urgent task for writing instructors. As far as pedagogical method is concerned, new media provides opportunities in teaching innovation and motivating students to compose. I think in a traditional classroom where we ask students to write a composition is too boring for them in this digital era. Whereas there is a necessity to enhance their writings, sometimes we have to allow them to explore creative and new ways to express themselves.

The still image assignment and new media production experiment are good examples for non-textual and multi-modal writing classrooms. The non-textual argument, the students’ engagement in the activity, and what they learn from one another in group work is quite good for a student-centered classroom practice. Further, what he mentions the “intuitive skills” that students have as they group up in this digital era that not only verbal communications and writings are engaged, but also frequent expression of themselves with images, sounds, and videos. The intricate communication systems we have nowadays demand much more profound and wider knowledge to be able to express ourselves and to understand others.

Selber’s advice of helping students to become not only aware of social conventions, but also capable of critically analyze discourses that they are interested in is crucial when we deal with texts and visuals permitted with various issues within different ideological frames. This is especially useful in my classroom because I want to develop students’ critical thinking and their use of logic in composition. Silber also suggests that our functionally literate students should be able to negotiate between and among discourses(16). I think this aspect is of great importance to ESL and EFL learners such as myself and my students.

Cynthis L. Selfe and Richard J. Selfe hold that interface can be the agent for the exertion of power in electronic contact zones because interface automatically enforce the ideology of the designer. Exertion of power is automatically related to gender, race, and other issues that will be influenced by the power hierarchy, no matter the impact is from which level.Wysocki and Jasken prefer to stress the content of the interface because it is ideologically loaded(32-33). This again, relates to the exertion of power, and the function of writing in establishing one’s social position, in expressing oneself to make others act, and so on. I want to show my students that their digital identities are their tools to influence and persuade others, through interface design, web design, and through rhetoric techniques embedded in both verbal and visual composition. Although this is difficult for my classroom settings which is disconnected to the internet due to ideological and financial concenrs, but I will try my best to use screen cut to show how wed design and other digital issues influence the audience. Among my non-English major students, there are some computer majors, and students who may be interested in developing websites, I can show them how this is also rhetoric because they may have been doing it without knowing it.

However, I should first ask my student whether they use blogs and other social networks and how they use it. I will tell them the serious problem of the digital divide and the powerfulness of new media and mass media in delivering rhetoric and exert power. I will refer to Steven Krause’s “A Very Brief and Very Selective History of Computers and Composition” and Lanham’s “The Electronic Word” in order to explain how crucial it is to master digital literacy and interdisciplinary knowledge. I will also tell them that although China is enforcing a good policy of English learning, students’ English level are relatively low, especially in listening and speaking. I will tell them the importance of how this can effect their future study if they go abroad, or their future careers if they go to transnational companies, or even just daily communication with foreigners if they want to learn from foreign friends and show what China is like to foreign friends.

Then I will ask them try to use sina blog for writing assignments. I think the most important thing is to let them know that it is not only used for entertaining purpose, but for social purpose. Through writing blogs in English for my courses, and writing blogs daily in Chinese for the purpose of their own life and the society, I think they will develop critical thinking gradually.

“Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies” really makes me excited on how students’ ability to enhance their words, sentence structures, and voice can become more persuasive to their audience (Introduction). Their mentioning of using film studies, music, psychoacoustics, and audio technology is fascinating. Through the use of sound tracks, students write texts, combine verbal with visual and sonic elements to compose multilayered writings. The authors talk about the relationship between voice and its representation of gender and culture. I think it is peculiarly latent for second language learners, and I want to emphasize this to my students. I want to show them that to have an accent of foreign flavor is not bad, but to learn how to communicate with foreigners are more important than wasting time in practicing and imitate their accents. I will also tell them that correct pronunciation matters in their assignments.

I love to discover the factors that influence students’ lives and experiences and the inspiration that we can become responsible and productive instructors and scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition. I believe that the practice of paying attention to students can also nurture our pedagogical trend in China, especially in the underdeveloped regions.


Assignment One: Midterm Assignment

Curriculum Vitae and resumé both in print and digital forms, and a recorded self-introduction/Autobiographical narrative

Option One: 

  1. This assignment is a practical document you will have to develop for your job or graduate study interview. Pay attention to things such as font and typeface.
  2. Think about the way you arrange your items such as education, internship, extracurricular activities, and so on. How can you CV differ for different employers?
  3. What type of material will you hand to employers if they come to our campus to recruit employees? How will you present yourself in such a short composition?
  4. Record the English self-introduction for a job interview using your cellphone, digital camera, MP3, PC, and so on. Send the record to my email box, or, if you don’t have access to the internet before deadline, copy it into my teaching computer before class begins.
  5. Each student will have to present the self introduction to the entire class on the stage. After the presentation, you will be divided into groups and discuss the presentation.

Option Two:

  1. Recall your English and Chinese learning experience and record your own story into a digital narration. Either video or audio will be good.
  2. Compare and ponder over the two learning experience and see what are the similarities and difficulties. You may also relate cultural, social elements in your argument.
  3. Pay attention to pronunciation and intonation when you do the recording. Don’t speak too fast or too slow. Avoid unclearness in pronunciation.

Assignment Two: Final

Option One:

Choose any text of your own interest and write an essay that is 1500 words in length, which is only one chapter’s length of your 8000 graduation paper. Better relate it with you ideas of graduation paper so that you do not have to do double work. Paper must have a clear and significant title which the argument will hit directly to. Theme must be relevant to the assigned text and related literary criticism. Printed text is preferred if the student thinks his/her hand writing will have a disadvantage for the final score. Format is MLA or Chicago Manuel.

Option Two:

A digital response to texts such as Act 3, scene 3 of Othello or Beloved in our readings. Please compose using your MP3, MP4, cellphone, digital camera, computer, blog, or any device that would be accessible to me. Ask me prior to your recording whether your device is readable to my computer. Digital composition may include visuals and sounds from other digital works, but intellectual property rights should be protected and respected. Creative ideas and critical thinking in using visuals and sounds will be helpful to final grade, however, rationale of using each piece of visual and sound track should be given in the presentation.

NB: Each student should schedule a presentation time with me at the end of this

class, orders of presentations are flexible if student(s) under concern agree to the change. The oral presentation should be a shortened speech on your final project. You can use any form of presentation including oral speech, Powerpoint presentation, handouts, and so on. I will calculate the time of the presentation. Each presentation should be limited to 5-8 minutes so that we can finish all your presentations within the last several sessions of classes. 

Assignment Three: Final Project for freshman who are not English majors

1. You will have to either write an essay or develop a multimodal composition such as video and audio argumentation. Written essay should be at least 300 words in length, which is double of your band 6 English exam. Use as many visual and sonic elements as you like in your multimodal composition. You may also use movie clips, screen cut, and other techniques you know. Pick some ideas from “xuduba” and see how the authors of the multimodal pieces play with collage and other postmodern ideas. You may also use intercultural comparison in the multimodal composition.

2. Those of you who choose to write an essay will still have to do oral presentation for your final project. Arrange the schedule that you would like to do the presentation. Each student will have 3-5 minutes to do your speech on the stage.

3. Hints: We have learned some basic knowledge on how to handle your new life in university as compared to your high school. Think of the following questions when you cannot find an argument to do in the project.

How do you think of your new environment as a small society?

How do you like it or dislike it?

What phenomenon(a) do you as an adult see important in this environment or the society as a whole?

What do you think you and your classmates can do to improve or enhance this phenomenon or these phenomena?

What have you learned in our classroom on Western culture? what are the similarities and differences between Chinese culture and the Western culture?

How do you think we can bridge the cultural gap and communicate smoothly?

What social problems we have talked about when doing the intensive readings? What do you think are the ways that such problems can be solved?

You can refer to various online forums, blogs, news, and other resources. My 163 blog may also give you some general ideas on what to write.


The general rubric of the assessment is that students’ composition, whether multimodal or not, should be creative and endowed with social concern. Arguments should be direct to the point. Plagiarism will result in a zero, and grammatical, format, and pronunciation errors will harm the final grade.

Because I have never give students multimodal assignments, I will refer to students’ audio essays provided by Dr. Mary Hocks and the rubrics she offers us in 8900 course.

I am used to be gentle to students, so if they appear in every lecture, they finish their assignments in not so bad quality, they will make a score that is over 80. Critical thinking, good logic, correct and natural pronunciation will add the merit of the assignment to 85-95 according to the grammatical ability of students. No one will get score over 95 because I think no writing is perfect. Non-native speakers’ writings will always have some problems, no matter big or small.

I pay much a lot attention to the listening and speaking because students in my region are relatively speaking poor in these two respects. Underdeveloped economy, scarce of teacher training in rural and urban areas lead to this status quo. I want to help them to know that the most important part in communication is being able to express themselves in speaking. I do not want to see my students lack behind in the fierce job hunting competition. They wil have to be tortured by me until they are good enough to pronunce correctly and speak smoothy English.


Online Paper and Resources

Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks. “Voice in the Cultural Soundscape.”

Selfe. “The Movement of Air, The Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.”

Anderson. “Prosumer Approach: Let us go then, you and I.”

Research Guide, Handbook, and Methodology

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