Multimodal Mondays: Scaffolding Activity to Introduce Disciplinary Genres

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Dockter+Jason_Thumbnail.jpgToday's guest blogger is ​ (see end of post for bio).

When I teach the second semester course of the first-year composition sequence, an unofficial course goal of mine is to help students gain an understanding of their discourse community and what academic writing and research in their areas is like. I give each student the opportunity to focus the entire class on their individual academic discipline. Each student has great flexibility in terms of what direction the course takes. Throughout the course, students gain experience learning about genres of writing that are used within their discipline, how writing is used within the discipline, and what topics academics/professionals in their discipline have recently been writing about.

In addition to the larger, more involved multimodal composition projects I include within my composition courses, I also find smaller, lower-stakes multimodal assignments to be valuable for students. Smaller assignments, such as this example, provide opportunities for students to experiment with multimodal composing. This way, students can take risks that they otherwise might not take with a larger project, but these attempts at different compositional techniques can offer students an increased range of approaches and tools to use when composing future multimodal projects.

The following  in-class activity helps students to learn about writing in their discipline and discourse community through learning about academic articles and genre conventions.


For students to develop an understanding of how academics in their fields work as writers, helping to familiarize students with expectations for writing in their academic areas.

Background Reading

The Everyday Writer provides a useful collection of readings in the “Academic, Professional, and Public Writing” section, spanning chapters 17-25. Specifically, in my class, I encourage students to read the one chapter that connects best with their academic field in addition to chapter 17, Academic Work in Any Discipline. Each student then reads two chapters. Most academic majors fit nicely into one of the following chapters:

  • Chapter 18, Writing for the Humanities
  • Chapter 19, Writing for the Social Sciences
  • Chapter 20, Writing for the Natural and Applied Sciences
  • Chapter 21, Writing for Business

Class Activity

This activity can take a variety of shapes and last multiple class periods, depending on how an instructor chooses to integrate it into the curriculum. The outcome of the project is for students to create a multimodal ‘How To’ guide for future students in their majors regarding writing in their academic major. In my class, I limit the scope of this to focus on the genre of the academic article, and accordingly, students’ work on this project focuses on that one type of writing as well.

I prefer to have students work in groups for this project, as it provides greater opportunity to converse about writing in a specific field, and also allows students to pool resources to complete the task. Once groups have formed according to related academic areas, students are tasked with determining the conventions associated with academic articles in their field and deciding how to collect that information and how to present it as a multimedia guide. I encourage students to conduct and capture interviews with professors from their discipline and to study multiple examples of the academic article genre and to connect their findings from both to specific concepts explained within The Everyday Writer chapter related to their field. Through their chapter reading and study of their academic articles, ensuing class discussions, and outside interviews, students identify key conventions and qualities of academic articles in their discipline.

From there, the real work of creating the guide begins, with students considering how to demonstrate the conventions and how to convey the importance of those discussions. While the focus for every group’s guide will be about the same type of writing, the decisions of what matters most and explanations of why will differ, as will students’ plans for how to present that information as a guide for future students to refer to as they begin their work in this major. They’ll collaborate on a specific organization of the content, on what media to employ, of how to capture their determinations about the genre conventions, and ultimately on how to develop their respective guides.

For instance, a group of nursing majors may develop a project that incorporates a presentation software, such as Prezi, Google Slides, or PowerPoint. Their focus would be on academic articles in healthcare, and they might choose to interview nurses, doctors, professors, or other healthcare professionals to get a general sense of how they use academic articles within their profession and what they value about this genre. Their presentation could be arranged by covering the general purposes for this genre and who uses the genre (both writers and readers). Some key points could be identified and then supported through clips captured (audio or visual) during their interviews. Other valued conventions could be identified through images taken of sample academic articles. For instance, the way an author uses outside research could be demonstrated through an image, or collection of images, of portions of an article to document the moves this writer made in blending research into her article. Students might also decide to illustrate a point through visual metaphor - perhaps a nursing student might include a diagram of a circulatory system to infer to readers the importance of connectivity throughout a text.  Altogether, these students might identify five key concepts and demonstrate them through various media and modes collected and presented through a presentation.

While we can easily discuss this genre of writing and agree upon important conventions, discussion alone limits the potential for students to firmly grasp the importance of these conventions. By having students create these multimedia ‘how to’ guides, not only do they get experience analyzing the sorts of work they’ll do later in this class, but they also get an opportunity to practice rhetorical thinking for how best to convey their message to future students in their majors.

Jason Dockter teaches first-year composition at Lincoln Land Community College. He completed his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University. His research focus is primarily on rhetoric/composition, with specific interests in online writing instruction and multimodal composition.

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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.