Multimodal Mondays: Teaching Visual Rhetoric for Accessibility with Alt-Texts

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Dustin LedfordToday’s guest blogger is Dustin Ledford, a graduate student at Kennesaw State University working toward a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing with a concentration in Composition and Rhetoric. He teaches First-Year Composition courses at KSU and also teaches diploma- and certificate-level composition at Georgia Northwestern Technical College. Dustin’s experience in the technical college system leads him to specialize in professional and workplace writing, which he incorporates in his course design to provide his students with experience writing for a variety of genres and audiences.  

How often have you asked students questions like “How does this sentence sound when you read it?” or “When you look at this image, what does the author want you to feel?” Chances are, if you’ve taught a class involving multimodal rhetoric, questions like these (or some variation thereof) have come up countless times during lecture, office hours, or even in assignment comments.

What do you do, though, if a student’s writing is too verbose or too fragmented, but the student is hard-of-hearing? How do you explain visual rhetoric if a student can’t see the image because of a visual impairment? Would you be able to cope, or would you be at a loss? How do you think the student might feel in that situation?

This is a challenge that I’ve faced many times as a composition instructor: I have worked not only with many hard-of-hearing students, but also with students facing cognitive disorders, learning disabilities, and visual impairments. Instead of just accommodating, best educational practices encourage us to build accessibility into courses from the ground up. So what does that look like?

For a practical example, I’d like to share a lesson and accompanying low stakes assignment discussing visual rhetoric. This assignment takes the idea of a relatively simple accessibility practice — writing alternate text attributes for images — and combining that practice with analyzing visual texts. Due to the nature of alternate text attributes, this exercise can also help students practice concise writing.

Background Readings and Resources

Assignment Learning Outcomes

  • Students will be able to identify and evaluate rhetorical elements of images.
  • Students will recognize the importance of alternative text in making their texts accessible.
  • Students will practice concise, descriptive writing through the genre of alt-texts.

Assignment Preparation

  1. Assemble (or locate) two short documents that are dependent on images to convey their full meaning. These text can be as simple or complex as desired, so long as students are given adequate time to read each document.
  2. Draft a short, simple quiz for each document (no more than five questions) that includes questions which cannot be answered without at least a basic understanding of the content of the document’s images. These can be simple questions (e.g. “According to the text, what’s an example of a fossil fuel?” when the example is only pictured rather than mentioned) or they can be more complicated questions involving simple charts or graphs.
  3. Remove all the images from one of the documents. (We’ll call this Document A.) Additionally, if any of these images have existing alt texts, be sure to remove (and save) them as well. Leave the spaces for the images, and number the spaces.
  4. Repeat this process with the second document (Document B), but be sure to keep the images grouped with the appropriate document (A’s images and B’s images).

Assignment Procedure

  1. Break the class into pairs. (We’ll call members of each team Students 1 and 2).
  2. Provide Student 1 with Document A, and provide Student 2 with the images. Be sure to tell them not to share either with their partner.
  3. Instruct Student 2 to write 5-15 word alt texts for each image they were given, then give the descriptions (but not the images) to their partner.
  4. Have Student 1 use Document A and Student 2’s alt texts to complete the quiz on his or her document.
  5. Have students repeat the process with Document B, but reverse their roles (the student who did not have the pictures writes the alt-text for the other student).
  6. Review the quizzes as a class (or provide an answer key) and have students score themselves. Afterwards, have them look over the images from their respective documents.
  7. Have each student revise the alt-texts they were given based on their experience taking the quiz.

Be sure to take some time with students afterward to discuss their experiences, particularly in terms of how images were important for conveying ideas and how the loss of that resource affected their ability to grasp the full meaning of the texts they read. Ask students to volunteer some of their alt-text descriptions and provide some of your own for comparison. Discuss what details took priority in each image and how having context changed their understanding of each image.

Reflection on the Activity

When I recently taught a student with a visual impairment, I became acutely aware of the difficulties students can face in our image-centric culture. Before we discussed visual rhetoric as a class, I contacted this student by email and asked if she would be comfortable sharing her own experiences with navigating her readings (and the Internet in general). This became a learning experience for my class (myself included) because it gave us insight into how difficult it can be to lose out on some of the intended meaning of writing when authors don’t take everyone’s needs into consideration.

Additionally, while I am still learning, this experience taught me to rethink some of my teaching methods and even the language I use to express certain ideas so that it is more inclusive to all the students with whom I work.

What strategies, activities, or assignments do you use to make your class accessible or teach accessibility?

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.