Introducing Multimodal Composition in the Two-Year College

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Multimodality is mainstream: In their exploration of threshold concepts for composition, Naming What We Know, Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle posit that “all writing is multimodal” and “all writing is performative.”  Andrea Lunsford showcases innovative assignments in her Multimodal Mondays blog.  Articles in Teaching English in the Two Year College have addressed visual rhetoric and multimodal composition.  In the Basic Writing e-Journal, authors Thomas Henry, Joshua Hilst, and Regina Clemens Fox make the case for incorporating multimodal composition in the basic writing classroom, calling instructors to “embrace multimodal forms of knowing and communication.”

Despite this prominence within our discipline, for many two-year composition instructors, the term is not familiar. Recently, after I praised a multimodal assignment designed by a colleague, she appeared befuddled.  “Multimodal?  Is that what I am doing?”  Other instructors in the two-year college may be aware of multimodal composing but regard it as disconnected from their primary mission, perhaps as inappropriate for “our” students.  “After all,” they say, “we’ve already got so many learning outcomes to get through. There’s no time to do anything else.” And in some cases, without a theoretical framework for designing multimodal assignments, instructors view them as “just high-school projects, with lots of flair but no substance.”

This summer, as part of an on-going course redesign to emphasize threshold concepts, I have been exploring ways to integrate multimodality in my ESL, developmental, and first-year courses.  I wanted to think about ways to make multimodality accessible to community college students—and faculty. 

I decided to introduce multimodality via discussion of two key concepts: affordances and “re-mediation.” To begin, I brought a copy of Ron Chernow’s lengthy biography of Alexander Hamilton to class.  We discussed first impressions of the book (most of which were negative):  “It’s too long,” or “You know by the guy on the cover it will be boring.”  I then gave them the two pages of the text devoted to the Battle of Yorktown, and they reiterated their initial reactions. Most indicated that they couldn’t imagine a scenario in which they would find the life of Alexander Hamilton to be interesting. 

I then showed the YouTube video clip of the Battle of Yorktown from this year’s Tony Awards, performed by the cast of Hamilton.  (Only one of my students was familiar with the Broadway play.) After a quick review of the obvious similarities and differences between the page and the stage production, I introduced the concept of “affordances,” or the specific communicative possibilities offered by the different modalities of presentation.  We looked at rhetorical choices available to the creators/authors, Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and what their choices might communicate to an audience. 

We also discussed the concept of “re-mediation”:  Miranda’s musical is an adaption of a work in a different medium.  In other words, he “re-mediated” Hamilton’s story (as told by Chernow).  At first, students responded in “better/worse” terms:  one medium is better than the other.  After reminding them about the affordances we had already described (and with a little additional prodding), students began to talk about re-mediation as a creative choice with powerful possibilities.

For their assignment, I asked students to re-mediate an essay we had just completed, in which students defined a term connected to a discourse community that they belong to. There were two parts to the re-mediation assignment:  first, they needed to create a text in a different modality (PowerPoint, infographic, video, audio, etc.) that illustrated the thesis of their definition essays.  Second, students were asked to provide a reflection, listing the rationale for the medium they chose, at least five specific design challenges and how they addressed them, the source(s) of the images they used, and the influence of the audience on their decision-making.

Student submissions varied in quality, as I expected, but overall, I was pleased with their efforts. A Pakistani student explored the connotations of the color “brown” by contrasting ads for skin lighteners with pictures of her family and friends; in her annotations, she contrasted the message of the advertisements (that reduction of “brown” leads to happiness) with her own use of “brown” to signify belonging and safety within the U.S.  In her case, the visual text afforded a level of expertise that her essay--riddled with structural errors typical of a student who is still developing control over complex sentences and academic vocabulary—could not offer. 

Another student did not believe images could convey the extent to which her understanding of the word “nurse” had expanded since she began her nursing studies.  She found stock pictures to be artificial, and at the same time, she recognized that she could not obtain permissions to show photos of actual patients.   Yet it was work with real people in the most exciting and most terrifying moments of their lives – and the vast knowledge needed to do this work efficiently – that she wanted to convey.  Her final product was a Wordle; when I first saw it, I suspected that she had taken the easy way out to avoid engaging with the assignment.  But her annotations revealed the project was an apt reflection of her thesis:  one word expanded in meaning, coming at her from multiple angles and directions, until she felt overwhelmed.   In her notes, she detailed her process for selecting words to include and determining which ones to repeat and how often.  While her annotations reveal a lack of attention to audience, they also showed a clear understanding that rhetorical choices make meaning.

I look forward to learning how other two-year college English instructors, especially those who teach integrated reading and basic writing, are embedding multimodal assignments in their courses.  If we believe 2-year colleges are mainstream, then multimodal composing belongs in our classrooms. 

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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.