Imagining Possibilities for Asynchronous Discussions: Multimodal Galleries

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While not all aspects of the shift to online and hybrid instruction have been smooth—and many will be jettisoned or revamped significantly in future semesters—I have found one unexpected boon in the process: new possibilities for asynchronous discussions. 

I had taught composition online prior to the onset of the pandemic, but in 2020 I shifted my corequisite courses online as well—and in the fall, I was asked to teach both composition and corequisite as hybrids, so that I had half my class on Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays. Thus, students could interact with some class members only in the online space, since they were never together in the classroom. 

In the first online iteration of my corequisite/composition course (summer 2020), I converted one of my favorite in-class group activities involving quote and paraphrase to the discussion board in our LMS. The results were mediocre, at best. It was obvious students needed some coaching, not only on the logistics of posting, but also on strategies for reading and managing a conversation that is threaded—with multiple strands of thought unfolding in tandem. 

The subsequent hybrid format in the fall allowed me to do some of that coaching, both via video and in class.  In the hybrid format, I also extended the length of discussions to at least two weeks, if not longer, inviting students to return to discussions multiple times, leading ultimately to a set of “reflect and review” questions after discussions closed: which posts challenged you to think differently? Why? Which posts generated the most responses? Why? These questions helped students situate discussions within rhetorical contexts, particularly when they connected our course discussions to more familiar types of online communication.

But as part of the writing about writing focus in my first-year and corequisite pairing, I’ve found another discussion style that seems to engage students more than traditional prompts: the multimodal gallery. I’ve used two of these in my composition classes, both with success. The first gallery occurs as students are working on a researched profile of a discourse community, which is the second major project in the class. As students begin the process, they read definitions of a discourse community, either from John Swales or Dan Melzer. Using that theoretical information as background, they research a discourse community and profile its shared goals, means of communication, language choices, common genres, and ways of recognizing members.  For the gallery discussion in the online classroom space, students then create a multimodal piece to introduce their chosen discourse community and one aspect of its communicative practices to the rest of the class. The multimodal pieces are shared via the online discussion, and students respond to each other in two ways: first, they talk about the rhetorical choices made in the multimodal piece itself, indicating aspects that drew their attention and or seemed problematic for some reason. Then, they ask questions about the discourse community in relation to the class readings.

In a later multimodal gallery, pairs of students are assigned a key term for rhetorical and lexical analysis—terms which students will be expected to use in the final paper for the course: claim, counterargument, concessions, ethos, logos, pathos, as well as some of the terms used by Ken Hyland to describe a writer’s stance or engagement strategies, including booster, hedge, aside, self-mention, and directive. Students find definitions from class readings, and they design a multimodal composition to define and illustrate the target term. Once again, students can respond initially to the composition itself, but they also build on the content: students practice illustrating these terms, composing their own paragraphs to show the terms at work, and identifying the strategies they used. (Later, I’d like to add a component in which students talk about how these concepts translate to multimodal compositions, but we haven’t done that yet). This discussion familiarizes students with the terms they will be using as the basis for their final assignment—in which they profile the rhetorical context of an argument about writing and analyze the structure and effectiveness of that argument.

These discussions occur over two or three week spans, allowing students time to think, respond, read, and respond again. Critically, by the time the discussion has ended, students will have composed not only a multimodal piece, but an additional 500 to 800 words focused on the meaning-making possibilities of different texts. In short, I think these discussions would qualify as what Myhill and Newman call “high-quality classroom talk” about writing that supports students’ metalinguistic and writing development.

How have you used asynchronous discussions to encourage writing development and talk about writing in your first-year composition classes?

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.